• Hale County This Morning This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
ND/NF Festival Post-Screening Q&A: An Edited Transcript

Hale County This Morning, This Evening ND/NF Festival Post-Screening Q&A: An Edited Transcript

Quincy Bryan in Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Quincy Bryan in Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Dennis Lim: I'll just start with just a pretty straightforward question. If you could tell us how you ended up in Hale County and decided to make this film, how you decided to make Daniel and Quincy the focus of the film.

RaMell Ross: I was taking photos and teaching in Washington, D.C. and I had the opportunity to go to Greensboro[, Alabama] to teach a photo course in a youth program for two weeks. As a lot of people know, living in most cities is oppressively expensive, and so I welcomed it. I knew that was going to be inexpensive, so I went down there.

Going to the historic south, specifically as a black man, is one of the most profound things, at least, I've ever experienced. Although I’m not Jewish, it was very similar to the first time I went to Israel–being at the wailing wall and in a holy land whose essence precedes your birth. [In Greensboro] I just felt the similar need to stay so I ended up taking a full time job in the youth program. Quincy eventually came through the youth program. I simultaneously started coaching basketball at the local high school. That's where I met Daniel. We just formed relationships. I knew them for around three years before we started filming. I didn't go down there to make the film, I just was integrated in social work in the community for a while first.

DL: You started as a photographer before moving into cinematography and moving images. There's a title card, I think it's the second card in the film, where you talk about filming as a time, specifically, time as a tool of understanding. Can you elaborate on that idea a little bit, and the shift from photography still to moving images?

I was making large format photos with a four by five camera that you put the hood on. Just that process itself is a very deconstructed thing. It forces you to slow down and let things unfold. There's an inherent patience about it. I think it's the most important element of the film for me, at least, in terms of time-based looking, is that when you look at a word long enough, it sort of disintegrates. The letters mean nothing. I realized that no one was looking at people that way. No one would look at someone long enough for the social constructions, the racial constructions, of class, to disintegrate and for pure humanity and the essence of the now to be what's forefronted in the perceptual exchange.

I was making images that began, eventually, to deal with the plurality of truth of black visuality. How do you make images in which they're not tethered to a very specific narrative, but based on a person's mood? How do you apply that to images? And I felt like easing the camera in time and staring long enough, waiting for moments to come up that could potentially provide some fluidity or some expansiveness.

From Hale County This Morning, This Evening
From Hale County This Morning, This Evening

DL: In terms of your process, how long did this take? How many years were you shooting?

Five years. So, to consider how long it takes to be hanging out with someone and to walk outside of a trailer, for an enormous storm to just be there, or for me to be hanging out with my guy Quincy and all of a sudden, Boosie to pull up her phone of a child that passed away and for that child's face to be overlayed over the face of the other twin, and for me to be in a position to be able to capture that ... Those moments, every time that happens in real life when I'm there, I just can't believe this is happening. It's so palpably moving.

But, I think most documentary films have around 200 to 400 hours. We had 1300 hours. I basically would wake up and hang out with the guys all day and shoot, and just enjoy our lives and do stuff. Then, spectacular things would just happen while you're there, because that's what life does.

DL: What is that selection and editing process like? I think that's really key to the shape that the film eventually takes, obviously. At what point did you know you had a film? I assume it's a film that surely takes its shape in the construction of it.

Well, the film's form took shape probably about five months into the project, because I made a long edit of a film that was very much speaking the same documentary language, the same "struggle narrative." The same person is doing this, and this is what happens. This is why they had a problem in their life, and this is what this means.

But I instead began to look at the moments that were, to me, the most moving and the most beautiful, in the photographic sense, in a wildly subjective sense. Like the net and everything in the one shot. This shot right here, to me, says everything. And then, the more you put those on a timeline, you start to realize relationships between the two, geometric relationships, color relationships. And then all of a sudden, I made a five-minute version that provided some sort of mode of understanding and place. It was probably Maya, my co-writer, that said this could be an entire film." I was like, "What if there was an hour and half of this? It would be insane. Is that even possible? It would take forever."

And then it was like, Oh, I got nothing to do and I would love to try to accomplish something like that.

From Hale County This Morning, This Evening
From Hale County This Morning, This Evening

DL: I'm curious about the title, which situates us in a place, and then also has this multiplicity of time. “This morning, This evening”, that comes from Baldwin, right?

Yes! No one's ever said that. The film is very much, in some weird parallel sense, a parallel to [Baldwin’s] This Morning, This Evening, So Soon. Thank you. I've been wanting to sneak that to someone, like, "It's a Baldwin reference."

DL: It's been a while since I've read it, but also it's a short story that has a pretty complicated sense of time, right? Can you elaborate on that a little more on this title and the meaning of Baldwin in relation to the film?

Formally “This Morning, This Evening,” speaks to the structure of the film. The entire film's edited from day to night, sunrise to sundown. So, within the five years that I was filming, there's approximately 12 days squished in there. As it relates to the [Baldwin’s] short story, I guess there's a character there, and it's supposed to be Baldwin, who's living in Europe and going back to the South. He’s reflecting on what it's going to be like to take his son back to the place in which he left to be not raised, in some sense. That sort of going back home is, I think, what I am doing. I still live in Hale County.

What does the South look like from the perspective of an African American male? The South as our conceptual home. How do we acknowledge history, move forward, deconstruct black visuality, start from scratch, imbed history? Time is all wrapped up in the historical present. It's really complicated and there's a lot more to say.

Bert Williams in Lime Kiln Club
Bert Williams in Lime Kiln Club

DL: Maybe one clue is the one instance of archival footage that we have in the film. You're talking about history and black visuality and representation. Can you say a little bit about the selection of that clip and how you incorporate it into the film?

I met [Chief Curator at MOMA] Rajendra Roy at Sundance a couple years ago. He said that he had some really interesting footage, and it was a film called the Lime Kiln Club, starring Bert Williams. It's pretty much an all-black cast, and Bert Williams in black face. It's just a wild film, because it's a silent film that–while there are some pretty typical gripping and damning stereotypical moments– puts forth a potentially positive representation of black people for its time. You realize that Bert Williams was doing something a little more interesting with black face than how we condemned black face in the past.

Watching [Lime Kiln Club], there's that one moment where we realize there's a possible way to put two markers on a huge constellation that is black representation in time between potential new representations, and the origin of the visual story of blackness, which is–through media–largely stereotypical and negative. It's a nice way to double down on what the film is trying to speak to, that also potentially allowed us to move beyond race within the context of the film.

DL: Something that's already come up in discussions of the film is Hale County being known for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans/James Agee project. I'm just wondering if you saw your film in conversation with that, and if so, how?

Yeah, definitely. I started making art form and images specifically because of Evans use of large format cameras. But the way in which I use large format camera, I don't infinite focus it. I use it almost like a snapshot sometimes. The film and my photography is in dialogue [Evans and Agee’s work] because a lot of people know Hale County specifically because of that.

One of the purposes of [Let us Praise Famous Men], I think [Agee] states, is to speak to the un-knowability of struggle. The un-knowability of what it's like to be human in an economic system which does not value X, Y and Z. So, the film and my photography in some sense, tries to elevate people to the same sort of state of rambling beauty, to give credence to the plight of the now and the place.

DL: Right. I’ll open this up in a minute, but I did want to ask, in moving from photography to cinematography, did you have specific reference points, or types of cinema or filmmakers who were important to you? There's a sense in which this film is experimental. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is credited as a creative advisor, and for me, the connection with Apichatpong is the trust in the mundane that this film has. I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit about filmmakers who are important to you.

“Trust in mundane,” that's true. So much trust in the mundane and banal. Well, Apichatpong's relationship as a creative advisor, we would send him edits, and he would just give feedback on every edit. It's really interesting, because his feedback is mundane. It's like, short, concise, and expansive, but it's 10 sentences. You're like, damn, how do you know this better than I do in some sense? It seems a little bit, almost stream of consciousness language.

Regarding film references. You know, it's weird–the biggest reference for this film to me, is Alan Ginsberg's Howl, because what it made me feel is what I was trying to make other people feel through the film, so it was less about other people's visuals, styles or film structures, than it was the capacity to speak about this from over here, and then for all of a sudden, this to be something new.

But, that being said, some of the films that I always go back to are, Chris Marker's film. I love La Jetee. I have that on my phone. I've watched it a billion times. I love [Charles Burnett’s] Killer of Sheep. I love [Terrence Mallick’s] Tree of Life. I love Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi trilogy. [Reggio] talks about the failure of language to speak to the human being in the capitalist system and that it's got to be visuals, because that's the most complex way. Everyone was like, "Yep. That's true."

So, those are my go-to's. But I must say, even when I watch cartoons, I'm moved. That makes it way in there somehow.


Return to HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING THIS EVENING on the Non-Theatrical Store.

© 2018 Cinema Guild
2803 Ocean Avenue | Brooklyn, NY 11229 | (800) 723-5522 | (212) 685-6242 | info@cinemaguild.com