Monday, March 4, 2019

Hale County: This Morning, This Evening Is A Transportive Avant-Garde Type of Documentary

If you're a pleb like me, you were likely puzzled by at least one documentary nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the 91st Academy Awards ceremony that went by the name of Hale County: This Morning, This Evening. It was a nomination thought of as surprising far and wide simply due to the low profile of the film (Hale County has never played in more than 8 movie theaters in its domestic box office run), though thankfully PBS put the documentary up on their website for a week so that individuals like myself who were unaware of the existence of this film could finally catch up and see what all the fuss was about.

A labor of love from director RaMell Ross, one that opening text indicates took around five years to make, the goal of Hale County: This Morning, This Evening is simple: it presents footage of predominately black residents of Hale County in Alabama that attempts to humanize the members of this county that so many tend to pigeonhole into stereotypes. The people who would perpetrate said stereotypes are never seen, rather, our focus is entirely on the everyday people Ross depicts through highly artistic means, like in a number of extended unbroken shots meant to evoke cinematic transcendentalism, like a prolonged sequence of small child running back and forth from a living room to a hallway. 

There's also numerous instances of unorthodox sound work that typically work to merge newly introduced on-screen visuals with previously established auditory elements. This is most notably seen in a scene of two boys playing basketball while numerous echoes of the chant "Whose child is this?" (which was heard early on in the movie) plays on a quiet loop in the background. It's a quietly eerie moment, one of the numerous instances of Hale County: This Morning, This Evening using its avant-garde sensibilities to successfully stir up emotions on the viewer as well as explore the unique individual identities of each of the real-life human beings the camera captures.

Speaking of camerawork, the relationship between the camera and the people RaMell Ross films is one of the most unconventional yet powerful parts of Hale County: This Morning, This Evening. Documentaries are meant to capture reality so the people in these films will always inherently have more cognizant recognition of the camera that's filming them in individuals in a traditional narrative motion picture. But typical documentaries usually have subjects either talking to off-screen interviewers or going through recreations of their everyday life pretending to be oblivious to a camera. In Hale County: This Morning, This Evening, interview subjects, especially children, are constantly looking at the camera that's filming them, in the process shattering any kind of barrier between the viewer and the on-screen human beings. 

The people who society tends to ignore or stereotype are now gazing at the viewer, occupying their full field of vision. There's no way we can ignore these human beings now. That's the core mission of this documentary, to put the humanity of human beings that are typically reduced to stereotypes front and center in a cinematic form, and director RaMell Ross does exceptional work in fulfilling this mission. Sometimes he goes about exploring this matter through the most casual of means like a recurring tendency to just let the camera roll as citizens of Hale County talk about their own life experiences through extended anecdotes.

This is a more grounded approach to exploring the central thesis of Hale County: This Morning, This Evening compared to the frequently avant-garde tendencies of the production, but the contrasting styles of cinematic exploration manage to flow together nicely. Perhaps the presence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a creative advisor on this project was one of the reasons Hale County: This Morning, This Evening flow together so well. It was a total surprise to see Weerasethakul credited in the middle of the credits for Hale County: This Morning, This Evening, but in retrospect, it's no surprise since the more surreal moments of the film do feel reminiscent of Weerasethakul's work, both in terms of style and effective evocativeness.

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