At the Cinema Eye Awards last week, Yance Ford, the director of the last year's Oscar-nominated Strong Island, presented to RaMell Ross the Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking Award for his Oscar-shortlisted film Hale County This Morning, This Evening.
RaMell Ross has an impressive producing team with Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover of Louverture Films (Lucrecia Martel's Zama, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery Of Splendor, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) to Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Charlotte Cook of Field of Vision, Susan Rockefeller (Oceana), Tony Tabatznik, Lynda Weinman, Su Kim, and co-writer Maya Krinsky.
Ross's subjects Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, a scene with Bert Williams from Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter's Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), the atmosphere of the local community in Hale County, Alabama, thunderstorms, starlit night skies, thought-provoking intertitles such as "What happens when all the cotton is picked?" - the filmmaker with the eye of a photographer captures a look in his début feature Hale County This Morning, This Evening that is unlike any other.
RaMell, who is also the cinematographer, knows when to change his focus.
A tiny bottle of holy water - a car on the street - "What is the orbit of our dreaming?" - cows on a meadow in time-lapse - a yellow balloon replaces a man's face - basketball drills - drops of sweat on the ground - a nose being pierced as tears are shed - "How do we not frame someone?" - birds in the sky, a field, water on a baby's belly and a pizza commercial. Daniel goes to Selma University. He will play basketball. Quincy's toddler Kyrie, with an abundance of energy plays a game of chicken with the camera. Will he stop running first? Or will the camera cut?
Willie on horseback
Chairs off a truck, the smoke of a burning tire thrown into the fire turns the tree into an apparition, a tie-dye phantom. "What happens when all the cotton is picked?" The birth of twins, a sudden death, a bee going in circles (recalling Kyrie).
A fishbone skeleton on the road - a pretty girl looks up and drinks from a straw - horseback riding - a fire is blasting - a woman with a sparkling necklace sings and cries in church - popcorn pops - a startled deer - a supermarket - at the hairdresser on the wall hangs a picture of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast At Tiffany's. A baby, basketball.
This is Hale County, if you hold it too close, it might disappear before your eyes.
Anne-Katrin Titze: I did not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul until I saw his name in the end credits. Then it did make so much sense. Can you talk a bit about where he helped you with some of the editing?
RaMell Ross: His editing consultation was more about grand emotional feeling or the way in which the film could be distilled into certain ideas, you know. I remember one that talked about that the film is doing action, touch and sedation.
Not that those were exactly what he said, but like ways of understanding the content from a different perspective. Not like literal edits. Also, like, "more of this", or "this took me out of it a little bit" - that type of advice.
AKT: The theme of myth that is so big in his films, there is some of that in the scene with the deer [in Hale County], for example.
AKT: The deer scampering off or the moon turning into a balloon. The dream-like structure that goes so well with the real. These are pictures that you don't see.
RR: That's interesting that you say specifically the myth and the dream. Because that's kind of one core idea is to give the visual space to form personal analogies and metaphors, right?
Because when we have a dream it's all of these wild symbols that are personal to us and are personal to our culture and then we make meaning out of that. And try to tie it to the experience of having that dream.
And so how do you do that in the context of society? And, like, how do you do it in the context of social constructs? Yeah, that was like really important to it. No one has ever said that.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening poster
AKT: I really liked the writing on screen, the specific questions you ask and the commentary. It could only really be there written to us on the screen.
AKT: Did you have more of these intertitles and cut them down?
RR: Oh, my God, so much! Like pages.
AKT: And then you decided that these are the core questions somehow?
RR: Just as much as these are the core … Or this is an encompassing landscape of thought, you know? Like this is a prod. This is like a suggestion. I guess it's the same as question, but I always lean towards the poetic when talking about it.
Also this could be simply digested in four seconds. Because some of the other language was a little bit convoluted, so it's kind of like, you don't want someone being like "What?" Like "What was that?"
Hale County This Morning, This Evening also won the Best Documentary Gotham Award and a Special Jury Creative Vision Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
The five documentaries to receive Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, January 22.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebration takes place on February 24.