Under the Influence

How The Qatsi Trilogy Gave RaMell Ross a New Way of Seeing

On Film / Visual Analysis — Feb 19, 2019


Debuts don’t get much more auspicious than Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Widely acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, RaMell Ross’s first feature-length documentary trains its lyrical focus on two young Alabamians’ divergent paths into adulthood, all while reflecting on—and thinking beyond—the ways that African American life in the South has typically been represented on-screen. Rather than imposing any overarching narrative on events, the director patiently pieces together sensitive images of everyday life in Hale County, creating an immersive portrait of a place and the people in it that is as humanely intimate as it is visually arresting. The thirty-six-year-old Ross, also a writer and photographer, might be new to feature filmmaking, but as he explains in the latest installment of our series Under the Influence, his keen awareness of the communicative power of the nonfiction moving image reaches all the way back to his years as a college student, when one night he discovered Godfrey Reggio’s magisterial Qatsi Trilogy at a party where it was being projected on a wall.

Awe-inspiring essay films that take stock of the destructive, dehumanizing effects of globalization and technological “progress,” Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002) right away got Ross’s wheels turning about the variety of ways documentary films frame reality. The Qatsi Trilogy’s frequent use of slow motion and time-lapse photography—techniques that Ross eventually found inventive uses for in Hale County—“quite literally alters one’s relationship to understanding what it is to see and what it is to know,” he observes. In the video above, Ross also marvels at Reggio’s ability to draw out his matter-of-fact political critique even in the space of individual images, whether via shifts in scale or putting foreground in dialogue with background. Keep watching for the Hale County director’s thoughts on how both his film and The Qatsi Trilogy similarly engage the enduring philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois.