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How ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ Redefines the Documentary

"The film closes the distance between people by inviting close looking, and in turn close feeling, and allows the audience the feeling of witnessing something—linking wonder and awe to the encounter with the protagonist."

Watch Hale County This Morning, This Evening Online

“I hope Hale County This Morning, This Evening offers the audience a cinematic experience of perspective and place,” explains the documentary’s director, RaMell Ross. “Shared experience brings people together and while those onscreen are the other participants, cinema acts as their medium of exchange. The film closes the distance between people by inviting close looking, and in turn close feeling, and allows the audience the feeling of witnessing something—linking wonder and awe to the encounter with the
protagonist.”

“The simplest way to describe Hale County This Morning, This Evening—and maybe the best way, since it’s a film of elemental radiance,” says Owen Glieberman, “is to say that it’s a documentary put together like a series of photographs. In this case, the photographs are filmed images, so they in effect come to life. The director, RaMell Ross, moved to Hale County, Alabama, in 2009 to work as a basketball coach and photography teacher, and the film is his impressionistic portrait of the life he found there—a caught-on-the-fly tapestry of experience.” To read the full article, click here.

“The camera in Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn’t there to point to a person or something and say to the audience: look at that, this is what is
happening,” Ross explains. “The camera is used, inasmuch as is possible, as an extension of my consciousness, part of my experience there, which must then pull the viewer further from their vantage point of outsider and closer to mine. It’s really the proximity to things that determines how much of them we understand. And so the
film takes a radically subjective approach to bring people closer together.”

“Early on, when I first started to make the film, I realized that there’s a different film when someone is entering into someone’s life to capture what they’re doing and there’s another film in which a person is filming where they would already be and where they’re participating simultaneously in the lives of those that they’re filming,” Ross tells Justine Smith.

“You end up coming from different positions, it’s a sort of snap-and-grab style that allows you to participate in the scene more authentically,” the director continues. “With more leeway, you inherently have more trust and more time to get up close and then also be far away. Being able to go back and forth leads to more flexibility.”

“I made a cut of the film probably about six or seven months in, and it was very much a traditional documentary,” Ross tells Bilge Ebiri. “Just really average shots and average voiceover. And in the same way that my photography developed, I was confronted with the failure of the film so far. Immediately: ‘This is really under-inspiring, and just fits into what everyone knows.’ 

“And I started to select single images that I thought in themselves said something magnificent about the place. And then it slowly developed from there as I gathered images. ‘Whoa, this image actually is really nice beside this one.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, what if I could just do the whole thing that way?’ Which early on is a ridiculous thought, because of the amount of time it takes just to get one of those images. So, basically, I would try to film with them all day. I would want one shot or image a day. If I had one thing that I was happy with from eight hours of shooting, I was so happy.” To read the full interview, click here.

“I was editing the entire time,” Ross recounts to Smith. “When you quote-unquote shoot someone, I hate that term … when you film someone, you’re constantly searching for meaning or representational moments, right? These moments are in dialogue with moments you’ve seen before in films, specifically with people of color; certain types of humanizing touches or gazes. You’re always confirming your own relationship to meaning.

“I knew every single moment that’s in the film, I already had that on the timeline over the course of five years.” To read the full interview, click here.

“After I made that early cut, I knew that form was failing for me, and I made a cut of all of my favorite images; I related them based on color, and sunup and sundown, and it was pretty moving,” Ross tells Ebiri. “I considered it like a trailer in some sense. And then through the process of looking at films and talking with people, I realized that a film could be something like this. ‘Whoa, what if I made a trailer of their lives? What does that look like in the long form?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m just going to shoot forever!’

“I have cuts of the film that could exist as an installation,” he continues. “I mean, I filmed everything. I have way more people that you wouldn’t recognize in interesting situations as well, and it could be an even broader collage. But we very specifically wanted it to be categorized as a documentary—to use the currency of truth. Because if I was going to make this a fiction film, people would just go into it unconsciously, not thinking that this is the way that you look at people, or this is the way that life is. The degree in which it relates to actual perception would be different.” To read the full interview, click here.

“Once deciding to make the film associatively, these wonderful little things would happen when editing, in that a series of images would unite together to have a
cumulative effect, a self-determined montage of sorts,” Ross says. “They also brought a sense of traveling through and into some other place. We called them movements
because of their musical relation, and they have a similar quality in that they cultivate a state of being. 

“At some point, I realized that these movements could be used to organize the audience’s journey with the film, allow them to engage with a sense of progress yet encourage the visuals to function the way music
does: for that moment of engagement, the pleasure of that single exchange.

“The global structure of the film is sun up-sun down, all images relating to each other by time of day. According to that structure, the film takes places over the
course of just under a week, 10 or 11 ‘film days,’ depending on your count, though the footage range is from a 5-year period of filming. 

Ross considers, “Popular American culture’s relationship to time and memory is distorted. Days, months, years, when does one thing cease to influence another? How many
sunrises until one moves on? The past doesn’t fade, it is absorbed into the present. In the same way we are all made of stars, we are all made of history. All
of human history has happened under the same sun.

“I shot over 1300 hours of footage. The editing process was happening throughout the entire production of the film. Joslyn Barnes, Maya Krinsky and Robb Moss—the editing team—and I were really challenged. As the film is composed of almost completely single moments, the characters do not appear as much as they would normally, which not only
increases the weight of that appearance but also makes the moments more susceptible to influence by what comes before it. Adhering to the form of the film
while balancing the micro shifts of feeling and mood while balancing the clarity/ambiguity of story took a collective brain.

“When I first started, I didn’t know what I was looking for,” Ross tells Ebiri, “and things would happen, and they would really move me, and they would stick with me, and then I’d think, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’ So, then you sit longer, you’re more patient, you’re moving less. In my case, I would not put a frame in the film that I didn’t consider to be perfect in whatever way. And I’m willing to lose content to make a perfect frame, because that’s part of the form.” To read the full interview, click here.

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