Directed by RaMell Ross
RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a slice of life documentary both unobtrusive and yet stylized in its own way. It observes at times like a fly on the wall and in other moments with an intimate proximity to the people onscreen. We see some crying with their heads bowed, the camera nestled so closely beneath them that you keep waiting for the tears to splatter the lens. In other moments characters speak directly to the camera or Ross behind it, and then you have moments in which it’s as if we are spying on a group of people from afar.
Other scenes show frames devoid of people. They are landscapes, lightning storms or fires and the accompanying smoke. These moments are less like the static compositions of an arthouse director but instead infused with the same subjectivity as moments involving other people. The framing, such as of the light pouring through a tree and smoke billowing nearby is perhaps a bit self-conscious. It says as much about the person with the camera as it does about the object being framed. It thus seems to highlight one person’s perspective over the thing he observes. In that scene with the smoke, in fact, Ross decides to leave in the final edit an offscreen conversation between him and a man who inquires about what he’s doing. In a different film we would see this moment with little context, but here we get a sense of the story behind it, even if it’s just a brief glimpse.
The documentary covers a few recurring ‘characters’ but remains mostly unconcerned with narrative. We observe some people long enough to grow familiar with them, but others appear and disappear with no notice. When we watch and listen to them we might as well be watching and listening to the community at large. We pick up on how people move, speak and what they speak about. There is a rhythm in their manners of expression, some more conscious than others, and part of what I assume makes this documentary work the way it does has to do with our own distance from the subjects onscreen.
It’s much the same as other small town communities captured onscreen, such as in Louis Malle’s God’s Country (1985), Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (2018) and Rich Hill (2014, Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos). These films observe ways of life in communities not often represented onscreen, and the power is simply in bearing witness to something most media and culture ignores.
But Hale County This Morning, This Evening has an accompanying subjectivity to all of this. It’s not only about the community around director RaMell Ross but also the things that interest him. We’re made to understand his curiosity specifically, such as in a moment in which in the midst of an interview with a woman and her young daughter the camera spins around to capture a sudden breeze carrying leaves across a parking lot, before returning right back to the woman being interviewed.
In other moments images that on their own could be taken for granted are juxtaposed overlaid and otherwise blended together in unique, experimental ways. Certain techniques suggest purposeful symbolism (such as an image of the moon lined up to fit in the palm of a hand) and others simply feel playful.
The people onscreen have something to say, about themselves and the world at large, and the film itself has something to say about what others (and we all) have to say. It’s a documentary about expression, perspective and observing the habits and rhythms of a community that, in the way it’s edited, seems connected to a singular heartbeat. Because of how all these otherwise disconnected vignettes are aligned and juxtaposed, Ross finds a connection between them, almost as if we are witnessing the collective unconscious become conscious.
Up Next: Moonrise (1948), The Party (2017), Permanent Green Light (2018)