Sundance 2018: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

On Film / The Daily — Jan 23, 2018

“It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’s evocatively titled documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening qualifies,” argues Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.”

This is “the first film shown at Sundance to list Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a creative advisor, which alone would have been enough to get my attention,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, noting that Ross was one of the magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2015 “and interviewed Strong Island’s Yance Ford for us last year, so some of his artistic concerns were already on my radar. . . . It feels a cop-out to assign any film the I-give-up label of ‘tone poem’ . . . My favorite shot/sequence is the spookiest: the camera, in a car, drives up to a house whose facade screams ‘plantation-era leftover.’ Tires and other rubbish are being burned, and Ross cuts to footage of vaudeville/silent film blackface performer Bert Williams hiding behind/poking his head through bushes, a ghost of a complicated past still haunting a trope-ridden property.”

“At its strongest, the film feels like kin to Kirsten Johnson’s great Cameraperson (2016), a free-associative nonfiction memoir comprised mostly of B-roll and personal footage,” suggests Keith Uhlich in the Hollywood Reporter. “Though the subject here isn’t Ross himself (despite a few offscreen aural appearances) but an entire community that, in both micro- and macrocosmic senses, has remained historically unacknowledged and unseen.”

Hale County is one of the films Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss in a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (36’42”).

Update, 1/25: From Andrew Crump at the Playlist: “You’ve probably seen movies that echo in Hale County This Morning, This Evening—the freeform tone poems of Terrence Malick, the human clipshow of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, the rhythmic, unfussy films of Frederick Wiseman. But RaMell Ross has an element on his side that these artists lack—a level of honesty attained only through intimacy. Ross knows his subjects as more than subjects. He knows them as you know your friends, your family, your neighbors.”

Update, 1/27: “I think my approach to filmmaking is burgeoning,” Ross tells Tre’vell Anderson in the Los Angeles Times. “The ideas from this film, the idea of the form of this film, is born from a sort of failure, in my opinion, for traditional documentaries to speak to the vastness of the black experience as it relates to [the idea] that we’re made of stars.”

Update, 1/28: “Ross demonstrates a talent for framing a scene in a striking manner, such as shooting a trash fire so that the rays of the sun shine through the smoke,” writes Daniel Schindel at the Film Stage. “This is a story made of the in-between pieces of stories.”

Update, 2/3: Eric Hynes interviews Ross for Film Comment, and the two explore “that heady and frankly exhilarating dual vantage—a looking at a community simultaneous to a looking out from it, seeing overlaid with being, objectivity bleeding into the subjective.”

Update, 2/11: More from Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice: “Hale County This Morning, This Evening will, I suspect, prove to be one of the standout titles of this entire year when all is said and done. I sat down with the director, who is also an acclaimed photographer, recently to talk about the uniquely immersive nature of his filmmaking process, and of the haunting, lyrical, bracing work that resulted.”

Sundance 2018 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.