The nonfiction feature Hale County This Morning, This Evening  is first and foremost a sensorial experience, not a narrative one. With that said, filmmaker RaMell Ross does introduce his main characters very early on: first Daniel and Quincy, two young basketball players on the come-up in Hale County, AL, and then Boosie, who is Quincy’s wife, and Kyrie, their first child (Ross himself was a basketball player through college, before he took up photography, and before he moved to Hale County). Yet while Ross documented this group for something like five years, he leaves the passage of that timespan deliberately unclear in the film itself. So when Hale County begins, Kyrie is but a small child being cradled by her parents, and then just a few minutes later, we cut back to Kyrie, who is suddenly now walking, scratch that now running, back and forth and back and forth across a single room, looking years older than she did just a minute ago. This is how Ross plays it throughout: births, deaths, relocations, and most (but not all) significant life events seem to sneak by in-between the film’s edits, along with the years themselves.
Meanwhile Hale County moves along with a rhythm that privileges the texture of the character’s lives far more than it privileges the events which populate them—something it accomplishes specifically by emphasizing things like an extended shot of a child running back and forth between the walls of a relatively typical working-class home in the South. “One of the core ideas of the film is if you don’t show a person’s decisions, then you can’t judge their decisions”, Ross explained to the Los Angeles Times in an interview following the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “By fractioning Daniel and Quincy’s narratives, concentrating only on the beautiful, spontaneous moments, you don’t have a chance to judge them—aside from the way in which you would judge a black person because they’re black.”
Ross’ purposes are demonstrably ethnographic, then, but the form he employs towards said purposes vary greatly. Hale County is broken down into movements wherein footage is arranged to suggest a progression from sunup to sundown, and even within those individual movements, formal qualities often shift at a moment’s notice: a single 10-minute stretch of the film is likely to include shots where characters testify directly to the camera; shots where characters behave as if a camera isn’t present; digressions which involve characters we haven’t been introduced to; landscape photography; time-lapse photography; slow-motion effects; and even, at one profoundly important moment in the movie’s rhythm, archival footage. As for what’s being depicted in these images: like the title implicitly suggests, we’re not seeing much from the middle of the day (the characters are rarely seen at a school program or a workplace), but are instead mostly seeing the rituals which sit on the margins of those days (family gatherings, basketball practices, downtime in living rooms and on front porches, watching TV). Sound elements also show off a wide range: sometimes the audio clear, sometimes it’s muffled by wind, sometimes it lines up with the scene we’re seeing onscreen, sometimes it’s taken from a different source entirely, sometimes Ross is heard conversing with someone offscreen, or sometimes it’s just nearly silent, that is until a thunderstorm or a basketball or a tossed-off statement breaks up the tone.
I was reminded of programming notes recently written by Nathaniel Dorsky regarding his own editing tendencies: “A montage,” Dorsky wrote, “bringing together associations and subject matter through a variety of moods and energies and juxtapositions, is what propelled and inspired these ongoing cinematic investigations.” Though his silent/16mm/18fps films are obviously far removed from the relatively more commercial form that Ross has employed for Hale County, I feel there’s something of a kinship between the way the images in their respective films interact with one another. For instance, Ross’ film is not explicitly critical of its characters, but it does employ associative editing patterns to create rich and sometimes even troubling connections between the scenes he depicts (I think specifically of one moment where a shot documenting parishioners crying and singing with deep passion at church then cuts directly into another shot of a person very dispassionately selling movie theatre-style popcorn). On certain occasions, Hale County even achieves that quality without a single edit. For an exceptional long-take where Ross’ camera studies an entire basketball team for a pregame minute in the locker room, where the faraway shot composition allows the energy and body language of pretty much everyone in the room to register deeply, there’s no descriptor more apt than the one Dorsky has often used to describe his own work: “polyvalent”.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening first played in Boston earlier this week courtesy the DocYard, and it’ll play again in Camden, Maine this weekend as part of the Camden International Film Festival, one of the premiere nonfiction film festivals in the country. (Since we’re making connections today, I’ll mention that the DocYard is a program of the LEF Foundation, which awarded grants to a number of other films that are also playing CIFF this year, including Where the Pavement Ends  and Dawnland ). I’m in Camden now, and will be reporting on the films I see here for the next week or so, but since this is my second year attending, I feel qualified to offer some hype already: based on the films I’ve seen thus far, the curation remains stellar (I’ll note here that another film I’m particularly fond of is Community Patrol , which plays at CIFF prior to Where the Pavement Ends), not to mention legitimately diverse in just about every conceivable manner.
There are debut films alongside veteran filmmakers, pitch sessions placed next to masterclasses, and radically experimental shorts playing near programs featuring New York Times Op-Docs, to name just a few strong contrasts. Additionally, the lineup features works originating from more than 30 countries in total, as well as literal gender parity among the filmmakers themselves (more than half of the films in the program have been directed or co-directed by a woman). “As a programmer, I feel that a filmmaker’s perspective on the world can never be neutral”, senior programmer Samara Chadwick recently told Indiewire, while speaking about this year’s programming. “Neutrality can really only be the stance of someone who has never felt like a minority. I believe a person’s own story inevitably affects the way they chose to tell stories, and that nuance is not at all a deficiency, but a depth of perspective that should be embraced.”
One may safely presume all sorts of perspectives will be represented across the festival. And one perspective I can wholeheartedly confirm will be represented is that of family members sharing their perspective on one another. When Hale County plays at Camden this Sunday, it’ll play with Into My Life , a film by Ivana Hucíková, Sarah Keeling, Grace Remington which logs super-8 home movies shot in Brooklyn’s Lindsay Park during the 60s and 70s by the mother of Cassandra Bromfield (it also documents new edits of those home movies which the younger Bromfield has been crafting for Youtube). And when Hale County played at the Brattle earlier this week, it played with Kamau Bilal’s Baby Brother , another short film which revolves around family relations, and another film that’s part of CIFF 2018 (where it’ll play in the “Shorts First: Earth” program on Sunday). Bilal’s piece offers an ultra-droll depiction of the minor chaos inflicted when his younger brother Ishmaeel moves back in with their Missouri-based parents after a failed stint living in “the city”. Just while doing his typical chores and errands, Ishmaeel incurs a series of increasingly-sizable damages: a broken glass, a busted lawn mower, and an utterly demolished car tire (in the meanwhile, close-up’s survey the ceaselessly patient nature of Bilal’s parents, via some truly funny cuts). Bilal recently described his production method and formal strategies to Filmmaker Magazine, who named him as one of this year’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film”—a title that was also granted to RaMell Ross back in 2015, when he was still in the process of producing Hale County. In that feature, Bilal describes plans for his own feature-length directorial debut, which he’s set to shoot in St. Louis. I hope that it gets made, and that I get to see it, perhaps even in Camden.
“Shorts First: Earth” will feature Baby Brother alongside five other films: Ed Perkins’ Black Sheep , Paloma Martinez’s Crisanto Street , Lendita Zeqiraj’s Fence , Rishi Chandna’s Tungrus , and finally Sophy Romvari’s Norman Norman , which is another of the festival’s highlights thus far. Over the past month I’ve become acquainted with some of Romvari’s prior films (through her Vimeo and other streaming outlets), and I’ve found myself pretty much scarred by two in particular—first Let Your Heart Be Light , where one friend helps another move past a breakup while the pair set up Christmas ornaments, and then by Pumpkin Movie , a brief Skype-based conversation-piece that captures and updates something of the confessional energy of Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction . Both are character sketches with an innate sense for framing, editing, and choreography—they each draw fascinating connections between the people being depicted and the spaces they’re inhabiting, right down to specific Christmas ornaments in Let Your Heart Be Light, or the unfortunate but necessary intrusion of the vulgar-looking Skype logo onto a delicate and intimate dialogue in Pumpkin Movie. As for Norman Norman, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, it’s another two-hander: the characters here are Romvari, whose face is never shown, and her elder shih tzu Norman, who therefore becomes the subject of the camera’s gaze for almost the whole runtime (about seven minutes). The only time we’re not looking at Norman is when Romvari occasionally cuts behind him to show what’s playing on her laptop, that being recent news reports about people who’ve cloned their dogs at great expense, including the case of one Barbra Streisand. Like Pumpkin Movie and some of Romvari’s other films, Norman Norman is another piece depicting a close relationship as it’s being mediated by technology. Obviously anybody who’s ever forged an emotional relationship with a pet can easily understand the emotional stakes that come along with placing audio clips about cloning over images of an older dog gently resting. So the question then becomes: what else can a viewer take from a shot of a shih tzu?
There are three or four separate close-up shots of Norman spread throughout the film, along with a number of more distanced compositions which document him in various half-asleep positions. And you quickly realize that while this is a relationship picture, the primary relationship isn’t “Romvari and her dog”, but rather “Romvari’s dog and me”: the director’s obvious talent for composition allows us to grant rigorous attention towards the way Norman arranges himself, the way he sleeps on his side, the way his tongue just barely hangs out, or the way his tired eyes nonetheless seem to remain at least halfway-attentive at all times. But our gaze of course isn’t synonymous with “understanding”—this is just looking, and logging. There’s a division here that can’t possibly be cleared: We can project our thoughts onto Norman, and indeed, the film feels structured to allow for reactions that border on the philosophical—but no matter one’s interpretation, we can’t really pretend to have forged any real psychological connection with Norman, we can’t imagine what’s entering his brain as he registers the unintelligible rush of images and sounds emerging from the laptop. And so I’m moved, most of all, by the sheer conceptual decision—by the choice to grant a series of emotionally-intuitive close-up’s to a being we can’t truly understand. Within a festival program that’s so rightfully concerned with matters of perspective and representation, where so many films work to create a sense of understanding between the viewer and the image, it was something of a radical shock to watch a picture which pushes the very concept of the close-up so far that we become explicitly aware of how much we viewers make those shots about ourselves. Norman Norman studies that exact gap, artfully documenting a subject which requires the audience to project themselves onto it. Call it Kuleshov Dog.
THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL CONTINUES UNTIL SUNDAY, SEP. 16. FOR MORE INFORMATION, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG/CIFF.
HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING PLAYS AT CIFF ON SUNDAY, SEP. 16 AT THE ROCKPORT OPERA HOUSE, 3PM.
BABY BROTHER AND NORMAN NORMAN PLAY AS PART OF SHORTS FIRST: EARTH AT CIFF ON SUNDAY, SEP. 16 AT THE CAMDEN OPERA HOUSE, 10AM.