Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

hale_county_this_morning_this_evening

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.

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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.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #9 – Hale County This Morning, This Evening

City of God (2003)

City of God

Why do you make a film? It’s only a relatively new medium, one which has a history now of over 100+ years, but the written word has been around for thousands, same with paintings. And City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund) or Cidade de Deus, was originally a recounting by author Paulo Lins first, in book format. But there are millions of books, and millions of stories. So why do you make a film? Why tell a story with images, with sounds and sights and do you best to create and reflect a world to an audience?

If I could answer those questions, I wouldn’t be asking them. But I think City of God has some of those answers. Because one of the things a film does, is communicate. It’s an arrangement, a mosaic of thousands of pieces arranged in order to present a picture, a view. And a mosaic can be described with words sure, but it is at its best when it’s seen. And City of God, needs to be seen. Forever.


It’s a film which if you ever needed to blow away someone’s common understanding of the world, the laws and rules and moralities which seem to govern the world you might live in, this film holds that understanding down and puts a gun into its mouth before pulling the trigger. Everything in the film destroys those boundaries, ripping apart their flesh. There’s no delicate innocence placed in this world, no societal halo’s applied to anyone. Criminals, kids, police, adults, drug runners and drug takers, every citizen in the City of God is a warrior, fighting the inhabitants or even the space itself. Every crime, every act damned by the law and society, takes place here. And not just takes place, but is encouraged, celebrated and becomes the reason for living. If this is God’s city, then God is more akin to the bloodiest Roman emperors than a benevolent caring father.

It’s also a film which gets to some of the darkest understandings of the human condition. That life can be cheap. That violence can be continuous, brutal and explosive, spilling all over the city like oil, coating its inhabitants in its sticky darkness. That your life can be upended by power, by chance, by accident, by anything with enough force to suddenly put a knife in your back when you’re not looking. And how witnesses, become participants, become casualties, and give rise to more witnesses who get caught in the same gravitational pull of time and action. And furthermore the film itself is a witness to it all, because the story it tells is of the city and its inhabitants and they both fed back into each other, a feedback loop splattered and distorted by the violence and struggle of a world turned upside down.

But even the residents of a hellscape live, and City of God is a witness to the life in all its perspectives. Even its most violent residents need to relax from time to time, and to see the favelas here only as places of violence is a mistake that the film refuses to make. The people who live there are just that, people. And they spend their time doing what every one else does. Working, eating, playing. The world is vibrant and sunny, and everything is soaked up, blood of the dead mixed with the blood of life. If life is short and uncertain, then it must be lived while it is still there. And through Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues)  primarily, we see how the space of the city works, how its’ heart beats.

But the heart supports the body, and the body of this film is one bursting at its seams. A dizzying, continually multiplying cast of characters spread over the city’s landscape, reminding me that in the real world everyone is their own protagonist, and their aims and ambitions sliding and crashing against each others. And the blood that pumps through the film, the racing, vibrant music is whips you through the landscape itself. And that’s balanced against the film’s cinematography, the films’ eyes, a camera which never dares to look up for fear of getting shot. A camera which keeps close to the ground, caught and trapped inside the winding and looping close quarters of the streets, a camera which is caught in the multiple currents of the film’s river. It strongly evokes war footage, captured first hand on the ground by journalists who put their lives on the line to present the images of what happens in a field where lives are staked.

I could go on about this film forever, it’s one of my favourites. But, if I had to put some kind of resolution down, to answer that question from earlier; why do you make a film? And I think one of the secrets is in the film’s tagline: “one man will do anything to tell the world everything”. One of the most powerful things a film can do, is present a world, real or fictionalised. And to show a world like City of God to the world, a world of spirited and electrifying danger, of adrenaline, of exhilaration moral and amoral, is one of the most incredible things you can do with a film. City of God transports you to the place, the time, the lives. And it does so by all accounts except by actually living there.  And to even catch a glimpse of the things which make us different, and the things that make us the same, in the eyes and hearts and stories of these characters, is a pretty fucking powerful reason to make a film.

-Alex

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City of God (2003)