Sitting in the dim-lit bar of Berlin’s most iconic theatre, the Volksbühne (a slab of concrete of modernist grandeur located in the heart of the former East Berlin, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz), RaMell Ross is waiting to introduce a screening of his Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It’s the end of the tour. As I take a seat next to him, his engrossing ethnography of an African-American community in central Alabama has spent the past year and a half touring the festival circuit, including bows at Sundance (where it nabbed the 2018 Special Jury Prize), True/False, CPH:DOX and New York’s New Directors/New Films, before skyrocketing the 37 year-old into planetary fame with an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Ross, as title cards have it, moved to Hale County in 2009 to coach basketball and teach photography. Hale County marks his directing debut. Shot over a period of five years, the documentary homes in on two young African-American Hale County denizens – budding father and local catfish plant worker Quincy Bryant, and Selma University student and NBA player hopeful Daniel Collins. They serve as the entry-points into a community framed through a mosaic of everyday rituals, gestures, choreographies – locker room banter, a baptism, a baby scurrying back and forth across a living room, guitar and basketball practice.
It’s large canvass whose beguilingly ordinary moments gradually sublimate into an otherworldly milieu, conjuring up an elegy of the epic-banal, as Ross would call it, a celebration of life inside a community that never once sensationalises its suffering or overtly gives in to nostalgia. Hale County was born out of Ross’ interrogations, as an African-American, into the ways “we’ve come to be seen” – and in the process, it offers a whimsical alternative, one that posits blackness as a default and doesn’t shoot at its subjects, but with them.
Invited to the Volksbühne as part of the VariaVision program, a collaborative curatorial platform founded by Giulio Bursi and designed to showcase works moving beyond traditional filmmaking formats, Ross sat with me for a good hour to talk about his Hale County and expand on a few points he’s touched in an ever-growing body of articles, reflections, notes. A prolific writer and now a professor at Brown, two of the articles Ross recently penned served as backbones for the following conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. For Walker Art, an elegy on loss, memory and photography; for Film Quarterly, as part of an issue devoted to reclaiming black film and media studies, a manifesto on the ways to renew our encounter with both fields.
Early into your piece in Walker Art you imagine what it’d be like if a stranger picked up an old photograph of your mum. You say the encounter terrifies you, because “the American stranger knows blackness as a fact,” and that “to the American stranger, she is the synthesis of every encounter and thought associated to Blackness.” I really liked the idea, particularly because it reminded me of your preoccupations about truth, and your claims that documentary has people somehow predisposed to it. Did you ever envisage Hale County as fiction, or did you always think of it as a documentary?
I could image it being considered fiction, or being attractive to people interested in the aesthetics or organisation of fiction. I think the only reason why Hale County is a documentary is that we always wanted it to be that way. Obviously that’s because of that certain predisposition to truth you have with documentaries, but also because of a certain way of looking that’s specific to them, a truthful way of looking: a belief that what you see exists out there in the world, and that you can encounter it, and that you possibly do encounter every day. But I’m happy Hale County is being programmed as a fiction film because [documentary and fiction] speak to each other in fascinating ways.
Would you ever see yourself working on fiction?
Yeah definitely. I’m working on a project right now with the same company I worked with for Hale County. And I think there’s just as many structural and formal things that can happen within fiction to reflect back the subtle and tacit indoctrination that goes along with watching anything that’s media-oriented. It just takes the right narrative and characters to work.
Going back to the notion of blackness, I was intrigued by your relation with Darby English’s understanding of strategic formalism – the idea that for black work to escape the label of blackness, to rise above black representational space, one needs to produce something that’s beautiful enough not to be reduced. In your case, not a black film – just a film.
Well, if you make a film about blackness and it lacks a conceptual attrition that allows to implode or explode that notion, then you’re participating in the same framework of blackness. So if you make a film about blackness but you make the form of it outside of the context, then you’re forced to consider blackness as something outside the traditional frameworks that it’s usually conceived in. It’s as much about making something that’s formally beautiful and situated in a social construct as it is about truly engaging with the idea that all form is content and all content is form. And figuring out ways to pull those notions apart and bring them back together for an audience that sometimes takes each as invisible.
There’s another passage from your piece in Film Quarterly when you wonder whether and how we could ever explore a moving image in a decolonialised imaginary. What kind of beauty would you expect to find in a world stripped of colonial power dynamics?
Uff! [laughs] I have to say this is something I’m still working on. It’s quite striking to wake up one day and realise: holy shit, I’m an American, and I have never thought of the world outside the rubrics of consumption, competition, striving and capitalism. I’ve put in a lot of time into thinking how to move away from those frameworks. But in terms of achieving a moving image and a beauty in a decolonialised space… I think it has something to do with participation and not pointing. Something to do with consciousness. Something to do with an image being able to embody a point of view that is as fluid for the person looking as it was for the person who made it. Maybe it’s the intent behind the image, or the spiritual use of the camera in that moment. Or maybe it’s a different type of camera altogether – not a monocular lens, but a trinocular one. When I talk to my students I like to talk about Stephen Shore, and his argument as to why photography is false. The idea that human beings are binocular, meaning we look at the world trying to bring things and make senses of them together, but photography is monocular, in which you create relationships which otherwise would not exist.
Yet you also wrote that “film and photography are technologies of racism”. And while Hale County is obviously a far cry from any sort of extrapolative or predatory style of documentary-making, I was wondering how you managed to steer clear from those pitfalls and toxic power relations.
It was by ensuring I was there for my own enrichment and not singularly the display of Daniel and Quincy’s life. I was living my life with their lives, and that was the life I was witnessing. I think all of this has to do with our temporal framework of looking at the world. When you make a documentary, chances are you’ll probably be given two to four hours to go into someone’s house and make your shots, so you’re like [mimics a frantic camera movement]. But if you have an infinite amount of time, well, I think that’s what allowed me to see with them, beside them, as opposed to toward them. It’s decentralising the point of view.
And it creates this peculiar feeling, that you’re essentially hanging out with the people you film. Is that a means to find a midpoint between objectivity and subjectivity, to collapse the two?
I think that’s is another thing that relates to that discussion of time. [Italian theoretical physicist] Carlo Rovelli talks about how “we are time in itself”, and so in order to connect truly with someone you need to be inside of their time, and that’s a process of negotiating space and a process of being fully in your consciousness when you’re shooting. And you could get closer to collapse objectivity and subjectivity if you had a near infinite amount of time. If you used the camera as an extension of your consciousness. If you shot with and not at – that’s when you can truly merge together worlds that don’t exist in the world of media production, which is one of industry, of consumption, of looking for meaning as opposed to letting meaning come to you. I think the best way to go about doing things is to be shooting for however long it takes for something to come up, something that is wholly unexpected, unscripted, and impossible to be conjured without you being there for 4 to 5 days.
I guess a natural consequence of this immersive feeling is the ineffable empathy that transpires from your images. You can feel plenty of it in Hale County, but it’s also tangible in Easter Snap, a short you recently brought to Sundance. We’re still in the same portion of Alabama Hale County was shot in, only this time we zero in on a group of African-American men, for the most part elderly, as they proceed to skin and boil a pig’s body. And there’s a pivotal juncture when a key character passes out, all of a sudden. It’s a dramatic moment; yet not only did you not gloss over and cut it out – you show the camera dropping to the ground and rolling as you race to help him, off screen.
I’m glad you liked it! It’s so not Hale County, and yet to me they share many of the same values. And the old man you see falling to the ground, Johnny Blackmon, he’s already passed away. People I filmed in Hale County have already passed away, too.
Are you still close to the people you filmed?
Of course! I haven’t been back to Hale County in so long just because the documentary has travelled so much, but I have a few things I have planned back there.
This leads me to a question of access. You spent five years shooting Hale County, and however large that amount of time may be, the level of intimacy you established with Quincy, Daniel and the others still baffled me. How did you manage to get that access?
It’s something I tell my documentary students. We have enough docs about people parachuting into neighbourhoods and shooting stuff in the hood. What if instead of that we shot films about places we’re in already? Stuff that’s just part of our normal lives? Documentary has to some degree being envisaged as a medium of ventriloquism, in which you interview people who can tell you things better than you could, who have situations and experiences you don’t have, and so you are with them so that they can say what you want them to, and once you think you’ve heard it all you’re done, because that’s all you went there to do. The discovery is not part of that process. I spent three years taking photos in [Hale County] before I finally took one I was actually happy with. And it’s because I had to work through my pre-existing notions of the South, my pre-existing notions of the landscape, my pre-existing notions of my students, my pre-existing notions of what it meant for someone to be in that community. Until I figured out a way to add something new to the conversation of documentary-photography, and that in Hale County happened through meeting people, through truly participating. When you work with someone in a classroom and there’s a student that’s been disenfranchised, there’s a certain amount of vulnerability in both parts, because they’re resistant to authority, and you have your own ways to do things. And that process of vulnerability is what I went through with Quincy, and it allowed us to get very close. Similarly, when you’re coaching someone, like Daniel, you’re constantly failing and you have to be open to somebody being able to help you. I had to be open to figure out ways to help him, but then humbling myself with that entire process. That exchange produced a relationship, and once I decided to make a film those were just two natural ones. It was just super fluid.
How do you feel about documentarians who try to pursue the kind of immersive ethnographic work you’re after but do not share the same history as their subjects, the same ancestry, the same traumas? The first name that comes to mind is Roberto Minervini.
I find his films to be interesting and beautiful, but I think it is time for filmmakers to reveal their own biases and to avoid producing media which, by default of the way in which they are constructed, pretend to offer an absolute point of view of truth. And I think this is a big problem – when you fantasise through aesthetics and you present it as a form of entertainment and social critique based on the books you’ve read and the films you’ve seen, but not the life you’ve led. For all you do is just witness things. You situate visual and emotional spectatorship in marginalised communities through the same old preconceived registers. You know, when someone outside a community is allowed access into it, and they suddenly find themselves in a family’s house, sharing a private space with strangers, it’s almost natural for them to go: “oh my god I can’t believe I’m here, that they’re allowing me to shoot them!” But a person who’s connected with the people they film on a much deeper level – an ancestral level, a community level – they’re not happy to be there – they’re onto another thing. Film and photography, I’ve said this before, they replace experience with these communities.
One of the points in your Film Quarterly manifesto says that it’s important to fail at representing blackness. “The act of representing is the act of reproducing – the less black, the more black.”
And I think that’s a problem even in our own communities, the fact that blackness is both fact and fiction. Black critical theorists and philosophers struggle with this too. We need to prove that we have a history of rituals that have survived through time, but we do not want people to overemphasise them, to think that only this is what it means to be black. And this is a very challenging task, of course. And we as black folks reinforce our own oppression by playing within a system that wasn’t built for us, so we double-down our own identity. The challenge is to expand that notion and still remember that that expansion, as tenuous as it gets, is still our community.
I was quite curious about your writing process and influences. How much of Hale County was scripted, and how much of it did you allow to just sort of emerge spontaneously?
There were maybe one or two shots that were pre-determined, but the rest was completely unscripted. I call it the epic-banal, and that’s what I’m interested in. That said, in terms of references, I take most of my ideas from emotional resonance and literature. Allen Ginsberg’s The Howl was more of an influence for the film than anything else.
That’s quite striking as a source of inspiration!
It’s because of the absurdity in the way Ginsberg is so verbose about something he can only attempt to speak to. It’s too big of a subject, and so he just showers it with words – twenty-nine minutes of them! I wonder how that would be applied to film? Tony Morrison once said: centralise the black gays. And that’s where I got the idea to re-orient the camera from. To take blackness as default. I never went to film school, so I never really cared about structure or narrative. I have a way of looking, and my background in photography taught me how to position a camera, so it’s all about piecing ideas together to make something that’s singular. It’s all about making something that’s yours, that matters to you, not shooting toward something else.
Going back to Easter Snap, you seem to have a penchant for rituals, moments in which a community gathers to perform rites together. What drives you to those moments?
One rule for Hale County was: no scenes. To me scenes are part of the industry of filmmaking, where you’re not interested in the consciousness of a point of view, you’re interested in summarising a thing for someone and in a specific way. [Easter Snap] happened in 2015. Except I couldn’t take one shot from it and put it in Hale County, because it was just too complex. I have never been so tactilely close to the idea of skin in racism as I was when I saw it being scraped off a pig’s body. And I think the filmmaker’s and camera’s proximity to these rituals – the camera handled with a sensitive point of view, a non-colonial point of view – is what allows to shed light on these spaces and moments which we would otherwise have no access to, spaces where bonds are formed among men. There’s a million ways to go about doing things but I think the ethos of not shooting towards an ideal is crucial. And I think this speaks to our relationship with religion, too. Sometimes I think about how Christianity tells us that, as human beings, we are never enough, that we’re always meant to bow down to some larger entity. There’s an ideal world we’re trying to get to, but the moment the idea translates to the way people shoot to capture an ideal sense of beauty, that’s when we reproduce a whole world of past bullshit.
Hence your idea that “the God of the camera is a colonizer”. Reading those words, I was left wondering if that God could ever be killed.
I hope so. I think so. If we all decided that there was no God with a camera, that would be a good first step. But we all have to shoot Him at the same time in the end.