RaMell Ross has taken the leap from photography to documentary filmmaking for Hale County This Morning, This Evening, capturing an intimate look at the African-American experience in rural Hale County, Alabama, following Daniel and Quincy, his friends and subjects, as they go about their lives.
His background in photography gives the film a sense of visceral insight, as the narrative unfolds in his motion frames. It’s been a year since the documentary screened at Sundance, but enthusiasm for its unique style has kept it prominently in the conversation.
I caught up with Ross to talk about his background in still photography and how that helped him with some of the documentary’s striking images.
Your background is a photographer. and much of the visual impact in your film is so photographic. What made you move from the world of photography to filmmaking?
It’s a pretty complicated move because the eye of the photographer really only lends itself fundamentally to a frozen moment and not a moment in motion. It’s like when everything coalesces. For me, the relationship between the two was to use that sensibility of concentrating on the frame being the space for all of the meaning to possibly have.
When you’re doing a photograph, you’re doing as much as you can with one still moment and then you move onto the next thing. With a film, you’re building things to prove a thesis or add the effects to build a narrative.
The whole narrative is in the photo in photography. I thought it would be interesting to try to put the entire narrative into each image.
How did Hale begin for you? You were a basketball coach at the time?
I wear so many hats and that was a volunteer job while I was there. I ran a youth program and helped students get back into high school or get some workforce training. I was playing basketball and also taking photos in my spare time while I was at work.
It was beautiful, constantly surprising and historical. It seemingly had so much meaning everywhere and you wanted to share it and the desire to share it was already happening when I was making images. There wasn’t a representation of it that was even close or as equally profound as it was to be there inside the immediate landscape. I started filming and it started growing from there.
Daniel’s story is a great one to follow. There’s the classroom scene where the teacher talks about the socio-economic climate and it’s such a great moment to address the poverty too. How much time did you spend filming to capture moments such as that?
This film was really challenging, the idea was to not have a “Narrative” and let all of the meaning come out of just living the life of the film and for me to live my life as opposed to their life with me looking at it.
I can talk to 100 people about what it was like to live in the South and what it was like to return and they could say similar things and look at rural and urban poverty. If you’re in that world, those things exist in the daily flow, but you have to take a long time to get that.
We had 1300 hours but then you get these moments where I’m filming with the guys and you walk out and there’s this storm that comes out of nowhere and it’s gone. I can’t imagine that just happened. You get a moment where you’re filming inside the Sheriff’s car and all of a sudden, lighting just streaks across the sky and it’s so metaphoric.
You have scenes with the arrest and you cut to that shot of the goat. Talk about those choices where you do that. You don’t tell us what happens and it’s such an engaging thing to watch.
When you’re hanging out with someone and you drive by and you see a sign like 678 on it and they’re like, “My grandmother told me about 678 and that’s an omen for me.” The goal for this film was to give someone a beautiful image in the context of the historical South and in the context of Daniel and Quincy’s lives. I wanted to leave it really open so it forces them to complete it. You’re fundamentally in conversation with their own imagination and that’s something I don’t think happens very often when people are encountering images of black folks. They’re very much being given some simple archetype or simple rendition.
You use the Jim Crow images which we are currently seeing a lot of. We need to be seeing it as a reminder, sadly. Talk about your filmmaking choice to put it in.
It’s so complicated because the film is super visual and contemporary visual. I was adamant against archival footage for the simple reason because it’s almost of the time because it’s been in the zeitgeist, and it also dates the film to a certain time in that global and historical sense. This film was very special to me because it had the ability to have a continuity cut in the film. It could be interwoven and to me, it allowed the viewer for one second to fall out of whatever trance and remember what they’re seeing is inextricably built on black faith and stereotypes and racism and all these things that have co-opted our capacity to see black folks even be ourselves as just folks.
You have powerful lines such as “I feel like I’m making enough money to go back to work.” You capture that balance of life and the struggle. Talk about editing those 1300 hours and finding that balance.
The film is trying not to have a narrative and not have a traditional structure, but how do you have a structure still? You have to have some organizing logic. The editing process was the idea that it would be awesome if the film could be edited to show sun up to sun down. Images had to be put aside for there was a fundamental continuity and once I had that it was about figuring out what was the most meaning in juxtaposing two images and make this subtle cumulative underpinned conversation happening. It’s really complex and idiosyncratic, but it was so much fun.
What surprised you about filming this?
That they are not part of the conversation. Where are the resources for the historic South? Michigan, New York, and others have their own concerns, but why are we not talking to the politicians. I don’t remember this being part of what we consider American progress, but it is strange to me because it is the origins of the Civil Rights movement but it is the furthest from progress. It’s really confusing. Maybe because it is a conservative stronghold. This is part of the country. Can Google donate a billion dollars? Can we get a big plant down here?