Shot over several years while he lived in Hale County, Alabama working as a teacher in the area, RaMell Ross’s debut film Hale County This Morning, This Evening is without a doubt one of the essential documentaries of 2018, and it plays this week exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s an interesting companion to What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, one of the highlights of this year’s Vancouver Film Festival (Seattle release date unfortunately unknown). Both are portraits of Southern, African-American communities, but from vastly different perspectives. As much as Roberto Minervini did to embed himself with his subjects and befriend them, he is necessarily an outsider, an Italian immigrant in America. And his film is more focused on rhetoric and event than on individual moments or the environments of the communities he’s depicting.
RaMell Ross, on the other hand, is documenting people he lived among for years. He’s filming from inside the room, and Hale County is made up of the kind of off-hand, minor moments that make up life, often devoid of any kind of narrative context (though there is a spine of a story about two young men, one of whom goes to college while the other stays home after high school). His tendency is toward the impressionistic (unlike, say, a Frederick Wiseman film), structured as much by image as theme. Ross even gives Apichatpong Weerasethakul a “creative advisor” credit, to give a hint of what the film’s rhythms are like. Though it’s world is far from dreamlike, it does have a certain potent magic. The presence of landscape (and its absence in the film’s interior spaces) is as deeply felt as any film of the year. Still, Hale County is no less political than Minervini’s film, of course, in its expressed intent to reconfigure stereotypical images of African-Americans, and in reclaiming the land they live in (the white residents of which were documented in the 30s by Walker Evans). Simply showing the way people live, in all their joy, wonder, tragedy and fear, is a revolutionary act.