Just one year after RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening won a Special Jury Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker will follow his film’s television debut on PBS by awaiting the Academy Awards, where it is one of five finalists for Best Documentary Feature. Quite a journey for the photographer-teacher-turned-filmmaker, for a small, beautiful film set in the demographically changed but still poverty-stricken place writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans made famous in their 1930s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Ross, who is currently a teacher at Brown University, did it all for this film: in addition to directing, writing, and producing, he was the cinematographer, sound recordist, and editor, one way he was able to keep the film so intimate, personal.  

“I do feel like a filmmaker,” Ross told Variety, “but I only feel it in the same way I feel like a brother to my sister – it’s just one thing that I do, or something that I am, but it’s not [something that defines me].”

Hale County is “not a long film, but it contains whole worlds,” wrote Glenn Kenny in The New York Times. “The particularity and power of the larger cinematic image he has created through a multiplicity of moments are impossible to adequately describe in critical prose.”

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a captivating film that forces us to reflect on the representation of blackness in a whole new light,” wrote Courtney Small in Cinema Axis.

In a chat conducted before the news of his Oscar nomination, Ross told us about his long road to and through Hale County, Alabama.

Filmmaker RaMell Ross
Filmmaker RaMell Ross

What led you to want to make Hale County This Morning, This Evening? In that time and that place?

– To exalt the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, the main people featured in the film.

– To centralize the perspective of this community in Hale County, Alabama in documentary’s language of truth.

– To offer an experience of the historic South.

– To instantiate a way of looking.

– To chart the visual story of blackness.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?

Fully executing the film, holding to the values and beliefs of the team in the ideas and footage, and our collectively not hedging the edit and form towards more universal standards to pacify fears of the film not connecting with audiences.

This is such an intimate film in a lot of ways. How did you ingratiate yourself with all the people in it whose lives we follow?

I lived in Greensboro, AL for three years before I thought of making the film, working in a nonprofit that assisted youth in gaining employment and completing degree programs. Being integrated into the community in an organic and traditionally selfless way built trust without effort or intention connected to a project.

Given you shot nearly 1,300 hours of footage over a few years(!), what was something that didn’t make the final cut that you wish could have?

About one more hour of footage! But the length would have undermined the potential distribution and impact.

What is one of the most impactful or favorite moments in your own film?

The church scene toward the end, with SheMia singing with her soul while Mary’s shadow sways and rocks against the wall, will always stand boldly and powerfully out of the strings of moments, but it’s the moments like when Kyrie backs up into the toy basketball net and gets his hair caught, the general impossibility of that happening, the breathtaking instant and hindsight consideration of witnessing that socially situated cosmic fluke with a camera, that speak most indelibly to me.

[In his chat with Variety, Ross mentioned the South and said, “One issue with talking about the South and dealing with the South is that it’s all visualized the same, and that contributes to the lack of imagination of a future that could be different.”]

So we asked him, what is “the South” to you?

The South is my home and I’m trapped in its stomach trying to get to its brain.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

  • Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy
  • Charles Burnett’s  Killer of Sheep
  • Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror

[In an LA Times interview, Ross said of Charles Burnett’s seminal film, which was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, “When that film came out during that time and the way it allowed someone to look at a community … it is monotonous, no profoundness. That is really effective. It changes people’s understanding of things.”]

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Find your personal poetic, leave the industry (because of its formal and conceptual pressures) and make something only you could make.

Can you tell us anything about what projects you’re working on next? Another feature documentary?

I just finished a short titled Easter Snap, and have sculpture, photography and text-based projects in development and production. My work will continue to engage the historic South.

How are the guys in your film doing since filming stopped? Do you keep in touch?

Both Daniel and Quincy say hello.

Hale County backyard at dusk

More from RaMell Ross on Hale County, the place and the film:

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show