Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.
—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926
Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.
—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’
In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.
Documentaries are not always the easiest things to watch. They look at the world in a different way, often a more reflective way and as is the case with RaMell Ross’s documentary feature, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, documentaries can create experiential rides which aren’t bound by the laws of common film practice. There is no conventional narrative or conventional narration, it’s a documentary which is not bound by the constraints of stories or the usual guided tour structure documentaries often follow. Hale County decides instead to connect the world of Hale County, Alabama to anyone who watches, through the space, the time and the inhabitants of it.
Ross’s camera orbits around certain people more than others; we follow Daniel Collins who is at Selma University on a scholarship for basketball, and his mother Mary Collins who has spent a large part of her life at the catfish plant which is the area’s largest employer. We spend time with Latrenda ‘Boosie’ Ash, and Quincy Bryant, a couple who endure life’s volatile rhythms while trying to raise their children. We meet Tomeko Elliott, Bert Williams & Nathaniel Davis, basketball players who’s moments in front of the camera resonate long after their image dissapates off screen. And there is the voluminous other faces and people of Hale County, figures which orbit in the backgrounds of images, in the soundscapes which ride along, who are just as important and rich in life to the camera’s eyes and ears as anyone else in the film.
And when the film is not accompanying the figures of Hale County’s space and time, it focuses on the place itself. Time-lapse photography of road bends, of basketball nets against the overwhelming night sky, of the animals, buildings,landscapes and the delicate, complicated images of life which have been given existence, and bottled by RaMell Ross to be witnessed. Life is presented how it often occurs, without commentary. As the smoke from a tire fire rises through the sunlight and treetops, the silence of the sequence provokes you to think, to see a reflection of life thrown back at you and to inspire (no doubt) multiple interpretations, multiple avenues of thought. The film’s imagery provokes thought, but it does not tell you what to think about. RaMell’s faith in the pure cinematic effect is breathtaking at times, as life’s various moments do more to inspire reflection and understanding than many many pieces of art I’ve seen.
But it is not just an ambigious force, unknown and left to the audience to mould it into whatever they want to see. RaMell weaves images together, physically impossible images which evoke a spirtiual understanding. At one point, Kyrie Bryant, a young child is having a bath and ends up holding the moon in her hands. I’m not clever enough to see what RaMell Ross was probably trying to evoke with it, but the experience and composition of frames such as these reach for a connection with the world, and with nature that goes beyond our normal understanding. Or as the smoke continues to rise from the tire fire, we are audio witnesses to a conversation RaMell has off camera with another man, explicitly discussing his intentions to grow a greater understanding of the black image through the use of photos and cinema. Hale County has an orbit (to use the film’s terminology) but it is a multifaceted one, concerned with a human experience as much as a black experience, and plenty more beyond that.
More and more as I get older, I realise that what you choose to put in front of the camera is where filmmakers stand. And it is important to be reminded that life is worth capturing, worth understanding, and worth showing to the world. A lot of Hale County’s worth stems from the sheer sincerity, respect and genuine love Ross possesses for the life of this world. That place of understanding drives what RaMell chooses to capture, and how it is captured. Life’s turmoil and life’s hope are presented in a way which reflects reality in a much closer way, without fictional order and dramatic hysterics. And in moving past that facade, he allows us to see Hale County and its residents, its space, its time in a way which resonates much closer to all of our lives. And that is worth championing. Because our nights and days are not infinite, but our experiences of the world are, and our connections to them only continue to grow.
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