Hale County, This Morning, This Evening at Open City Documentary Festival

Director RaMell Ross initially moved to Hale County, Alabama to coach basketball at a local high school and to teach in a youth programme. This was how he met the loose protagonists of Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins. Although Ross was already taking photographs before he moved to the South, over time his photos became increasingly inspired by the people and landscapes around him and his relationship to the region. After three years living in and photographing Hale County he began to start filming, eventually amassing an astonishing 1300 hours of footage over the next five years.

The impressionistic film eschews a traditional narrative structure but does offer the viewer a few discernible character threads. Namely Daniel, an aspiring basketball player at Selma University, and his interactions with family and friends. We also glimpse the intimate family life of Quincy and his partner Boosie as they raise their children in Hale County. Ross’s genuine friendship with his subjects is one of the films greatest assets, allowing him unique access to family gatherings and daily life for residents of the community. Ross’s stated aim was to create a film made up of “beautiful, spontaneous” moments; these are both commonplace and wonderous, whether it be a child running back and forth across a living room or dappled light shining through trees.

In the Q&A following the screening, Ross gave the audience insight into his view on the history of the South. Hale County forms part of the ‘Black Belt’ of the southern states of the US, which stretches from Texas to Virginia. The region’s dark, fertile soil meant it was ideal for growing cotton; the majority of slave plantations were based there. Although the history of plantations in Alabama isn’t explicitly discussed by the film’s subjects, one of the film’s intertitles poses the question: “What happens when all the cotton is picked?”. Ross takes this further by intercutting footage of his approach to a plantation-style home with a clip from Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), a silent comedy by vaudevillian comic Bert Williams.

Ross tackles the concept of representation in storytelling in a more abstract sense too. Hale County This Morning, This Evening explores the nature of the act of looking and the moments we choose to represent a character or place. Ross describes how having a background in large format camera photography meant he was able to look in a creative and novel way. The process of looking at an image that is upside down and backwards underneath a hood meant that he was able to keep looking at something “until it disintegrates”, allowing new meaning to emerge. This process inspired his filming style and influenced his mission to highlight beauty in everyday interactions between people, objects and places.

When questioned about why the camera sometimes moves away from a traditional scene, a conversation for example, to a seemingly insignificant one, Ross described how over the course of filming he became more and more comfortable with using the camera to mimic the human process of looking and distraction. The lack of an extensive crew meant he never felt the film needed to be rushed; in fact, it was five months into filming when he started to get a feel for how he wanted the final feature to look. If something else caught his glance the camera would turn to look too, in the casual way that something may catch our eye mid-conversation. Ross aimed for the camera to be a fluid extension of the body, in the same way a basketball naturally becomes an extension of a basketball player’s arm. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a visually enchanting and free-flowing film that challenges stereotypes around the lives of African American men and foregrounds the beauty of the everyday.

Sam Stone. Sam is a reporter and aspiring film-maker based in Bristol and London.