In his stunning, Oscar-nominated debut feature Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ross resists ‘consumable’ images of blackness
What is the orbit of our dreaming? questions one of the intertitles in photographer and filmmaker RaMell Ross’s Oscar-nominated documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening. A poetic, dreamlike look at America’s ‘Black Belt’, the film (which was one of our favourites of 2018) draws a portrait of Hale County, Alabama, where Ross has lived on and off for the last five years. It centres on Daniel and Quincy, two young locals – one a college student on the school basketball team, the other a new father – while also opening out to depict their wider community.
Compiled from 1,300 hours of footage, the film is led by an aesthetic impulse rather than a narrative one, jigsawing together images like a lime green balloon, a sickly deer in headlights, and the birth of a pair of twins to interrupt expectations about how a documentary should be structured. Instead of drily explaining the sociological reasons for Hale County’s political and economic disenfranchisement, Ross’s impressive feature debut offers a philosophical take on the cosmic expanse of black ambition, and the injustice of its earthly limits.
A military brat, Ross was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but grew up in the US, with stints in Indiana, Chicago, Maryland and Virginia. “We moved to the US because there was a bomb,” he explains. “They were trying to get the military to leave Frankfurt, so someone blew up a car in front of our apartment complex. My parents were like, ‘Nope!’” Ross studied English and Sociology, and cites avant-garde filmmakers including John Akomfrah, Charles Burnett and Andrei Tarkovsky as his inspirations. “The literature of Toni Morrison or Jean Tomer – they’re the work and images that have stuck with me. The epic banal exists more in poetry and prose – those works indirectly produced Hale County.” Dazed spoke with Ross while he was in London in December, to discuss photography, politics and the ethics of documentary filmmaking.
You didn’t grow up in Hale County. What brought you there?
RaMell Ross: I taught a two-week photography course and ended up staying.
What was it about the place that made you stay?
RaMell Ross: Well, the first reason why I moved there was because it was inexpensive to live. I was just travelling as much as I could and doing a bunch of things so it didn’t seem that strange to me to commit to a job there. It’s a privileged perspective, because you’re not stuck there.
How did you come to recognise that privilege?
RaMell Ross: My relationship to photography growing up was like, the idea of photojournalism or newspapers – it’s far less art or marketing. It was more a means of showing a place, or showing people, which I learned to be problematic.
“Everything that I shot – anything in Daniel and Quincy’s lives – is a political act. All of the imagery is political by default – you’re filming people of colour, our bodies are political” – RaMell Ross
Problematic in what sense?
RaMell Ross: Just the problems of romanticising or idealising or dropping into places and taking photos with the assumption that your framing of it is one properly holistic, representative thing. That’s contributed to a lot of misunderstandings and stereotyping of the world. As I started to find my voice in photography, I became more interested in making the photograph a space of contemplation and not a space of proof, or a space of absolution.
How do you avoid making a documentary a space of proof?
RaMell Ross: I had never made a film before. I just had this DSLR and just started shooting with my guys, and I made an early cut. It was just really... bad? I saw the problems I encountered early on in photography in the film, in that early cut. It was a character study that explained disenfranchised men, and the problem of growing up in a place with no resources, and the striving that black Americans do in places where they don’t have connection to real opportunities and real education. I couldn’t see anyone getting anything new from it.
At that point, how did you decide to shift your approach and fit the film together in this associative way?
RaMell Ross: I went back, and I scanned through all the footage and I found the images that I thought were the most striking and unique and simultaneously had the most symbolic or metaphoric power or truth. I put all those on the timeline, and then connected them together.
Everything that I shot – anything in Daniel and Quincy’s lives – is a political act. All of the imagery is political by default – you’re filming people of colour, our bodies are political. It’s not beauty for beauty’s sake, it’s knowing that when the sheriff’s grandma has the fly swatter and is hitting it on her lap, it’s a black woman wielding power in the house, you know. But it’s also beautiful.
At times, the film’s aesthetic impulse makes it feel more like an artist moving image project than a narrative documentary.
RaMell Ross: I think it had to be a documentary because of the way in which people approach documentaries. The way that people are predisposed to encountering truth in documentary doesn’t exist in any other (art form) in the world – that’s the closest thing to someone preparing themselves and releasing all of their guards to an encounter with something that they know exists in the real world.
There’s an intertitle in the film that reads How do we not frame someone? – which seems to refer to both the way we frame someone using the camera, and the way we blame people for their own misfortunes. Was that play on words intentional?
RaMell Ross: I wrote this weird manifesto for Film Quarterly – in it, I’m like “We’ve been framed black”. We’re legally framed to do things, but we’re also photographically framed. That made it in there as a double entendre because I think there are serious consequences of framing someone.
You’ve spoken before about trying to make blackness “less consumable”.
RaMell Ross: Most people watch films once and they don’t desire to watch them again because they are package-made for you to be able consume them. It’s a single serving. But with blackness, to me, the problem is its assumed knowability. You have politicians in the US who think they know the best ways to govern communities, but they’ve never been in these communities, they’ve never had substantial interactions with people who grew up in these circumstances.
It took a long time for people to be like, the portrait is a reflection of the photographer, not the person. People are so convinced, like “You really captured them!” and I’m like, what the fuck are you talking about? (Photos turn) a moment in into this grand, illustrative representation of something, but they’re like one fragment of one millisecond. The idea of taking this assumed understanding of what the culture is filters back in, because that’s what you get paid to do, and then that becomes how you represent yourself. To suspend the understanding of a person means you don’t know how to invest your imagination into it, is what I mean by making black folks less consumable.
So it’s about not regurgitating and recycling the images of things that we understand to be black, and instead trying to find new images?
RaMell Ross: Yeah. And there’s a lot of space for new images.
What are some of the films you see Hale County as being in dialogue with?
RaMell Ross: Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), the Qatsi trilogy, The Tree of Life, Killer of Sheep. When I saw those films, the first thing I thought was ‘No one has ever given a black man 25 million, 30 million dollars to make their masterpiece dream thing. What would be my version of that? How could I do that? I have the time to do that – I don’t have the money, so what if I just spent the time?’ When I saw the Qatsi trilogy, I was like, ‘What if you applied this to someone’s life instead of the world? What if you honed it in – how would I speak without words?’