Hale County, Alabama as seen through a masterful new eye.
A visually expressive act of experimental nonfiction, RaMell Ross's Hale County This Morning, This Evening takes a specific section of the Alabama Black Belt to observe, redefine, and empower the cinematic image of African-Americans on screen. And while the doc often follows two young men throughout the five-year shoot, to call the film a slice-of-life portrait would prove reductive. Shot with a 5D Mark III, Ross's camera is fueled with a need to transmute film language through inventive associative editing, superimpositions, time-lapses, and, in at one moment where Ross is heard off-screen describing his fascination with the flames from a burning tire ascending through the trees in front of him, film theory.
No Film School had a chance to discuss the film with Ross ahead of its Sundance premiere, and, as you will read below, he traveled a rather interesting road to get here. For more on Ross' still photography, check out his article penned for The New York Times in 2015.
No Film School: I read that you had dreams of becoming a professional athlete before eventually transitioning into photography. Along the way, you were involved in politics a little? Take us through your early years and how you found your strengths.
RaMell Ross: I played basketball at Georgetown and then had a bunch of injuries and at some point realized that...actually not at some point, at the exact point was my sophomore year. That's when I realized that I wasn't going to the NBA and it's what I had been working towards and had never considered another alternative. That sort of awakening turned into this extreme desire to be in the world in a new way. One must find themselves. I became obsessed with reading and writing and literature and ended up double-majoring in Sociology and English. I was already majoring in Sociology and I tacked English onto it because I wanted to read as much as possible while in school.
I graduated and did some traveling and worked for the State Department and lived in Northern Ireland. I played professional basketball over there for a year and simultaneously had started taking photos and working as a photographer for this non-profit organization in Northern Ireland called PeacePlayers International. Anyway, I was taking photo-journalist-type photos and this ESPN photographer said that I had a nice eye. That was the first time that someone told me that my photos were something and I felt that I now had something that I was good at again. I just started obsessing over film and photography and started making music videos and just fully exploring the world through the image. I started teaching photography and film in elementary schools in Washington, D.C., and eventually found my way to Greensboro, Alabama, and was pretty prolific at that time in terms of making images. I wasn't being published everywhere, but I was definitely a photographer, definitely an artist at that point.
"I began exploring the region and my relationship to the people through my photography."
NFS: How did you get to Alabama specifically?
Ross: My friend was working for this organization as an advisor, it was kind of like a social do-good organization called Project M. They were using Design to assist in social change. I went down with him for two weeks, to leave D.C. and because the rent was so high and I wasn't making a bunch of money. I taught a photography program at this local non-profit in Greensboro, Alabama, and fell in love with the place. As a black man from the North going to the South, it's a pretty profound thing and I moved into staying. I began exploring that region and my relationship to the people through my photography, through large format photography, which is where the work started to take a political bend, but without the overt symbols of it being political, without the overt language of it being political. After living there for about three years, I guess I started to make a film.
NFS: Were Daniel and Quincy, the main subjects of your film, featured in your photographs as well? How did you find your main subjects?
Ross: I met Quincy through the program. He came through it. The program was a GED certificate program for kids that had either dropped out of school or they're "at risk kids" from 16 to 24 years old. Quincy didn't graduate high school and so I met him through that program. I wasn't taking photos of Quincy at that point, but was more his teacher, his mentor. We got along, and we played basketball together. I coached basketball at the local high school and I met Daniel there, as he had just graduated and we sort of talked a bit in the interim. Eventually, the film just sort of naturally occurred.
NFS: Also striking, even from the outset, are the title cards that read like quotes and contextualize without necessarily spelling out the situation at hand fully. An example: "What is the orbit of our dreaming?" How did you come to include these and what did you feel it brought to the film?
Ross: The film is a fairly formal exploration, and in some ways it's this impressionistic visualization of what someone would describe with language. In my point of view, it's a very literary film. In the editing space, our team and I felt that we needed to not ground the audience in language but rather give them more context to catch what was going on. It's easy if you shoot something that is attractive, it's easy to get lost in that moment of experiencing it. You can look back and not know its greater purpose. In order to not let the film wash over people, we wanted to make sure that there were moments where we could check in with something that mimics a literary tone, or mimics the way the film aspired towards a potential literary structure.
NFS: Of course, it being so literary as well as visual, there are beautiful moments of visual symmetry that prove a binary relationship between images. Even from a moment early on where we see a player's sweat hit the ground as he dribbles the basketball and then cut to raindrops hitting the pavement as a storm brews, connections between images become more clear and profound. Take us through how you associate one image with another. It really stands out to the viewer.
Ross: I'm not sure how many images you've taken, but I'm sure you've taken a bunch of images. When you take one that's like another one, you draw connections between those two, and sometimes there's more meaning between the two. The entire film is associatively edited and there were a few rules that determine whether or not an image can go beside another image. It happened sort of naturally by being myself fully as an image-maker. You tend to do things in the same way just by way of habit and then you end up with similar looking images, similarly framed things and then that becomes a way to take you through the story and allow different imagery to be connected. So we can jump from Daniel's sweat to a storm in two or three shots, and that's a huge jump without it being disruptive. In fact, it creates more meaning in the relationship between the human being and the landscape.
"I tried to not use the camera to point [at an object], but to use the camera to extend the way in which I was fascinated with what was happening in front of me."
NFS: Is that also something you incorporate in your use of superimpositions too? I'm remembering the child in the bathtub looking at his palm and how you superimpose, in his hand, the moon. Do you have fun playing with what you can superimpose onto another image?
Ross: Yeah, definitely. This was me trying to find a way to give the film the layers that represented what it's like to be black in America or what it's like to be looked at. There's a lot of things that go on in our interpretation of something and there's also something that we come up with visually (and then there's more depth behind it). In some ways, the editing of the film itself has a formal skin that is poetic and impressionistic. There's meaning within that. I think the superimpositions were a way to bring forth the form of the film, acknowledge the skin of the project and remind you that you're watching a piece of something.
NFS: Do you have a preference for keeping your camera somewhat still and static as opposed to moving back-and-forth? Sometimes it feels like you're finding motion within the frame without necessarily moving your camera, like the shot of the moving treadmill or the shot of the young child tirelessly running from left-to-right in the living room. Having now worked in motion pictures, do you have a preference for how you move your camera? How conscious are you of that?
Ross: I try to use the camera as an extension of consciousness. It sounds heavy-handed, but if we were able to float in a space and observe without time constraints, then we might stare at something because it's rhythmic and beautiful. Sometimes we'd looking at its details and other times we'd be following something with our head. The camera was really light and I became really comfortable with it and could hold it in one hand. I tried to not use the camera to point [at an object], but to use the camera to extend the way in which I was fascinated with what was happening in front of me. I would stare at something interesting with my camera and something would (or would not) happen in the frame. Many times, nothing happened, or someone would be walking and I'd try to look at them as I would in real life, turning the camera as I would turn my head, and then when something else catches my eye, move the camera in the way that I would move my head. The first person viewpoint has become embedded in the way in which the camera and the frame is made.
NFS: How long was the shoot? Did you have to come back to Hale County often and pick things back up with your subjects?
Ross: The entire project was shot in like five years and three months. I had a place in Greensboro where I lived and I consider it my first or second home now. I have a trailer there and I would often go back to shoot. I tried to spend half of the year filming and hanging out with the guys. Sometimes I wouldn't even shoot. I I would just wake up there, spend three weeks or a month at a time [with them]. I'd wake up, hang out with them all day, and then come back to my trailer, go hang out with Daniel all day, go hang out with Quincy all day, etc. I shot an absurd amount, like 1,300 hours of footage. For me it's not about the time, but rather the quality of the gaze, the finding of moments that bring something really whimsical to the narrative, something really beautiful that only comes from spending time with a person.
"There's way more to a black person than the idea of being black. If a person's couched in that, then they're lost in the silhouette of blackness."
NFS: You mentioned race relations and how you were trying to capture a new portrait of African-American men on screen. What made you choose to incorporate Lime Kiln Club Field Day in the film? It stands out as a prominent piece of archival material, but were you aware of it beforehand?
Ross: While I wasn't aware of that specific film, I was aware of Bert Williams and I know a little bit (or a lot a bit) about blackface and its use in minstrel shows. I had a conversation with MoMA's Chief Curator of Film, Rajendra Roy, and he asked if I wanted to take a look at some interesting footage he had. It felt like a really good way to remind the viewer of the way in which they're looking at the African American community, the way they're looking at the African-American male or person are rooted in (or its origins are rooted in) blackface. The relationship between racism and the camera are inextricable. It's always been the main propagator. Part of the film is meant to relieve the burden of looking at someone with these "struggle narratives," and with this expectation of performing blackness. In a moment of looking at something, we can move beyond it. That's what we wanted to do, to acknowledge and reset that perception.
NFS: The great Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a creative advisor on the project. How was that relationship established and how did he help you with this project?
Ross: He had worked with my producer Joslyn Barnes before, and when I originally started working with her, she told me "Joe" would really love my film. We sent it to him and hit it off. I love his films, a lot of his early work, and some of his recent stuff is pretty profound and moving. It's really strange, but there are people with the capacity to feel truths and understand the way in which something's working. He's really insightful, able to articulate what works, how it works, and why it works. He organized things through language that brought clarity to the film and allowed me to move towards the right finish line.
NFS: After working through hundreds of hours of footage, your first motion picture is now complete. What did you get from the experience? Are you interested in exploring the form in new ways?
Ross: I think I'm interested in pursuing other films. One thing I learned was that you can only do things during certain times. What allowed me to make this film was this painful frustration with "struggle narratives" and the ways in which African-Americans are typically represented and my searching for new ways to make meaning and say what we all know, which is that there are...well, there's way more to a black person than the idea of being black. If a person's couched in that, then they're lost in the silhouette of blackness. It was such an interesting period of my life and of Quincy and Daniel's lives. That can never be repeated. I have some film ideas that move this strategic formulism forward, but I'm a really slow maker and, as you can tell, I like to spend a lot of time doing stuff. I'm not sure how to really articulate it or know exactly what's gonna come, but I'm developing some stuff. It's so strange to make this film. I had no idea any of this was going to happen and it was very much a "project," like a labor of love that gained momentum.
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