The microbudget documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the debut feature as a director for fine art photographer RaMell Ross. I doubt that was initially the film’s intended form. With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result. Like all D.I.Y. art projects (especially ones this disinterested in narrative) there’s a hit or miss quality to Hale County on a minute to minute basis, but in its best moments it strikes the exact notes of beauty & nightmarish atmosphere you’d want to see in a microbudget, swing-for-the-fences debut. A lot of that artistry seems to be the result of editing-room tinkering in post-production, but it’s all built on the foundation of Ross’s already-established documentarian eye.
A large part of the reason RaMell Ross’s photography work lends itself so well to documentary filmmaking is that he already was documenting little-seen niches of life before he thought to set those images in motion. Ross’s latest project is portraits of black lives in the rural American South, finding eerie beauty & tragic calm in lives marginalized by poverty. More importantly, though, his work’s fine art formalism brings a distinct cinematic eye to his newfound medium so that these portraits don’t feel so much like matter-of-fact dispatches from lives on the fringe, but rather expressions of beauty and deep guttural moans of pain & frustration. The spaces he documents in Hale County, Alabama provide a very grounded, recognizable tapestry of black lives in the modern, rural American South: churches, dorm rooms, trailer parks, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, maternity wards. They don’t amount to much aesthetically, but Ross’s patience & detail-oriented eye allows them to develop into a larger tapestry that encompasses birth & death, time & the cosmos, real life & the world of our dreams. He asks abstract questions like “What is the orbit of our dreams?” and then “answers” them with small, candid moments of sweat dripping on a basketball court or the Sun vibrating across the sky in a time-elapsed road trip. It’s an eerie, disjointed gestalt — the kind of distinctly cinematic eye usually not afforded places like Hale County, Alabama.
As you might expect with a narratively disinterested, tonally experimental art project, Hale County‘s greatest strengths lie in the intensity & memorability of isolated images. Much of the film patiently documents the minor moments of toddlers’ playtime, stray kittens, wandering cattle, and video game “parties” in crowded living rooms. Yet, there are also spectacular moments of a one-of-a-kind novelty: intense Southern storms swarming in on tiny, unprepared human bodies; a mother’s eyes rolling around her skull on pain mediation during an intense birth; a prankster jokingly attempting to view a solar eclipse through a waffle fry. There’s an undeniable political weight to this style of portraiture as well, especially in the financial & physical conditions of the setting and the quiet presence of police lights that bathe & invade those spaces in regular intervals. I’m not convinced that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a slam dunk (to borrow terminology from the film’s strong focus on local basketball culture), but it’s certainly a wonder to behold in its best moments and an emotionally harrowing experience even in its worst. The only question now is how much greater could RaMell Ross’s cinematic eye become if he set out to make a feature film on purpose at the start of a project, instead of finding one after the fact in the editing room?