RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been enthralling audiences since its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Set in Hale County, Alabama, this evocative documentary gives a new meaning to the Black communities who live there. It is about more than just a Southern town, and a must-see for anyone trying to understand the region.
Ross took some time out of his schedule for a phone interview. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
DM: My first question has to do with the Black Belt South, how it’s changed in the 21st century and how your film spotlights this community that doesn’t get heard from much. How conscious are you of how you’re portraying it? What was the thought process?
RR: As it relates to the South and the Black community and Hale County specifically, my relationship to these places is pretty historic. I felt very much like an insider, and my separation is more linguistic—I don’t have the Southern accent. A whole bunch of other cultural elements happen when someone is raised in a different place; they are different, but very much like an insider in the community. I spent a lot of time just participating in their world, and so for me the film is about many things. It is about explaining what the central idea of the African American experience is in the community I was participating in, being majority African American but also wildly subjective. It’s my truth within their truths, until there’s this sort of subjective-objective conflation. That, I think, is a more honest way of trying to translate this experience.
DM: When it comes to the “Southern voice,” are there any other works you see accomplishing that level of honesty?
RR: Man, that’s a good question. I was really influenced by Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” that sort of epic poem, and Killer of Sheep, this Charles Burnett film. Also, stuff like Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy. These are pieces that you know are a person doubling-down on their point of view, really scrapping convention, as a response to the times. I think that’s what Hale County is trying to accomplish.
DM: What judgments do you think have been made of Southern Black communities through other films?
RR: I think it’s just as much through culture as it is through film. You know, language people use: Trayvon Martin, he shouldn’t have resisted. They say,“[Martin] should have done this and he shouldn’t have done that.” Film is inextricable from that problem.
DM: Can you talk about going from being this fantastic photographer and taking all these amazing pictures to [making] your first documentary film? What were you worried about? What was the challenge?
RR: I wasn’t really worried about anything, because I don’t have worry in my artistic process. I think the challenge was to have the film exist as a documentary, but simultaneously be a mirror for a documentary. With photography, you’re trying to say everything in one image. With a film, because of that time element, you’re given this sort of leeway that allows you, that actually encourages you, to neuter images in order for larger links of logic. The challenge was to make the photographic idea that everything is in the image, and then make every image everything, and then link everything to everything. So I guess a challenge was time: “Should I work on this project for thirty years, or just five years?”
DM: Do you have any advice for beginning filmmakers and students who are trying to get their work out there and trying to get their voice?
RR: Read and watch films that aren’t from the U.S. Watch non-Western films—and I wouldn’t want that truncated to “Don’t watch Western films.” There’s a very specific narrative or use of the camera in Western films that’s way more tied to capitalism and commerce than in other countries. [It] also ties into our cultural beliefs.
DM: Right now you’re meeting a lot of people and doing interviews. What advice do you give about doing this kind of professional stuff?
RR: Think deeply about what you do, and also work intuitively from the heart. Then do a lot of writing and start researching and trying to understand exactly what’s happening in your film, so you’re not putting something out there that is unknown to you. Like I say: “We’re in the business of knowledge production.” When we take a photo, we’re putting literal knowledge into the world. We’re either reproducing social structures, critiquing, [or] translating. Be as conscious as possible, but don’t let that stop you from being whimsical and having fun.
DM: When did you get to the point in your career that you felt like you knew your style and your voice?
RR: I knew I was doing what I wanted once I started taking photos, when I graduated from college in 2005. I took one photo class in undergrad and was like, “I really want to do this.” In the South, I was taking images from 2009 to 2012, and it actually took almost three years for me to [create] images that I thought had some sort of cultural value. Because the place is so burdened historically, and so mythological and romantic, the aesthetic is almost pre-determined by the way in which we’ve seen films and read books and seen postcards; so it took about three years to get to a place where I could see through the visual platitudes and use those in a constructive way to say something deeper. And that’s the exact time that I started the film.
DM: How did you recognize you were getting to that point?
RR: I think when the images were complicated, [but not] complicated in the way you see an image of poverty and it’s like, “Oh man, that image is deep because there is a rickety house,” or, “There’s cotton.” Those are markers for very specific things we already know about. There’s more ambiguity to the image; it starts to force a different way of interacting with symbols, which encourages investigation. And so it was very much about knowing, and about experimenting with the image … trying to push oneself to be a little bit more critical or active.
DM: Do you have any idea what your next project is going to be?
RR: I have some text-based pieces, some sculptures, [and] some photo projects I’m already pursuing—I’m not going to share any details of course. I’m incredibly dedicated to working specifically in Hale County and in Greensboro, Alabama. I have a place there; I’m there right now.
DM: How different do you think the film would have been if it had been [set] in, say, South Carolina or Georgia?
RR: Incredibly different. Visually, audibly, and textually, one of the most interesting things to me [are] the consequences of an idea and the consequences of a moment in life. Everything is contingent: You miss someone, and it can change your life. All they did was walk by you, but, you know, depending where you are in life that could be a wildly influential moment. And so the film would be nothing like what it is, because all of my interactions and all of my conversations and all of my perceptions would have been different.
Ross’s film was recently acquired by Cinema Guild and is set for a 2018 theatrical release, according to deadline.com. Be on the lookout for this poetic documentary at a theater or film festival near you!