The first feature-length film by RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, has been praised for creating a new genre within the documentary form and evoking with unusual clarity the life of a particular community. I wouldn’t dispute the general sense of these claims, but there is something too grand and final about them, an implication that we know what the film is about and how it works. Part of its distinction, I think, is that we don’t, and perhaps won’t for a long time.
The film is short, an hour and 16 minutes, but that span is culled from some 1300 hours of footage. A first title card reads: ‘The discovering began after I moved to Alabama in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball.’ A second says: ‘Photographing in my day-to-day I began filming, using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.’ I know we’re not supposed to read texts in films as if they were poems or contracts, but coming back to these cards after watching the film, I did feel the careful weight of certain features in them: the repeated present participles, the recurrence of the word ‘photography’, the idea of using time.
The first image we see is that of a car coming to a halt. A rather sulky-looking young man gets out of the back seat, stands by the car for a moment, then walks off without saying anything. Later we recognise him as one of two basketball players we follow throughout the film. The next shot is of a girl’s lap as she tresses her hair, with the voiceover sound of a preacher, whom we get to see as the camera angle widens. He doesn’t finish his hortatory sentence, but we do see him blessing the members of his congregation, anointing their heads with holy water. The film cuts abruptly to one of its signature scenes: a broad view of the main street of a small town, sunny day, lots of parked cars, and lots of people standing around. The camera moves down the street, right in the middle of it, as if the double yellow lines were there for the film, some kind of guide for the tracking. The movement continues all the way to the church at the end of the street. Then we get the title of the film.
We see the street again later, in essentially the same shot, only the camera is tracking faster and there are fewer people: this evening, perhaps, after this morning. We see pieces of people’s lives, hear them talking to themselves, to the camera, to each other. We catch fragments of narrative. There is the story of the woman whose mother wouldn’t let her keep her child because of the man she was living with. The man had ‘attitude’, and the mother didn’t return the child till the relationship was over. There is the story of a young mother expecting twins. We see the babies right after their delivery, being held up by nurse, while the exhausted mother whispers their names: Karbyn and Karmyn. Soon afterwards Karbyn dies, and we attend his burial. The young father says he has always feared sudden death for himself and now it is visited on his child. The camera is very discreet about all this: omnipresent but uncommenting, as if it knows its job is to watch but not to have opinions.
In a way Ross is teaching us photography as much as he is letting us look at a part of the Black South. Teaching us film as photography, that is, or photography as film, and the work’s most memorable moments, its chief credits, let’s say, are divided between sightings of what the camera can do and long glimpses of what a camera allows us to see when it does nothing at all. We know the camera can film movement, and we know the camera itself can move, as in the street scenes I have described. And if a camera can move forwards, you can also get it to look sideways out of a car or a truck, as Ross does, so that field after field after field flies past you, as if the rural were a new name for infinity.
And most magical of all, a camera, whether moving or still, has desires, knows what it wants to see, what it can’t bear to let go. There are several wonderful moments in the film that would count as sheer self-indulgence in any ordinary account of documentary film-making, moments of pure photography, so to speak, where the camera itself is amazed at what it can do, or perhaps at what there is for cameras to see. I am thinking in particular of a scene where a man is burning old tyres. He throws another one on the pyre, smoke and flames multiply, and the camera follows the smoke into the trees and stays there, watching it rise among the dark branches, against the pale sky, where a sudden glint of sun appears as if on cue, as if conjured up by its earthly copy.
But then other great moments in the film suggest just the opposite. Recalling many moments in early film history where the camera is just a watcher, a spy hoping something comic or terrible will happen, Ross just plants his instrument in a place and leaves it there. In one instance a team of basketball players is waiting to play or practise. Just waiting – except that just waiting is a busy affair. They fidget, they jiggle, they walk around, they pretend to fight. Then after a long time, longer than we need to get the idea of waiting as an active sport, just long enough for us to start to have other ideas, or wonder whether ideas are what we are supposed to be having, they leave the room. At no point did any of them show an awareness of the camera, so the effect is really that of an absence.
An even more intriguing scene involves a little boy of about three running from one side of a room to the other. A television is on, and to the right of the image we see the feet and legs of the two people who are watching it. The boy pays no attention to them. His game is very serious. He has to run to a certain spot, turn round, and run to another certain spot. And run again. And again. He is enjoying himself, but he is concentrating, he feels this running is important, all-absorbing. One critic has said it’s clear the boy is thinking about the camera, about being watched, doing all this is as a performance, enjoying the stardom. That’s possible, but to me he seems fully caught up in his own world, so the effect, while unlike that of the scene of the waiting players, is of the camera’s exclusion rather than its absence. It has stayed long enough – again too long for the purposes of functional communication – to have faded away.
The phrase ‘how we’ve come to be seen’ invokes memory as well as present life, and two evoked memories seems especially important to the way the film works. One comes to us as a film clip taken from a silent work from 1913 called Lime Kiln Club Field Day. It stars Bert Williams, a black actor who often appeared in blackface make-up, as he does here, in an editorial arrangement which has him peering through a stand of trees, apparently looking into the colour-film present, wondering what is happening. The other memory is a song, and we hear it as the credits roll at the end. The singer is Billie Holiday, and the song is ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. ‘We lived our little drama,’ the song begins. ‘We kissed in a field of white/And stars fell on Alabama/Last night.’ There are too many ironies and undercurrents for me even to begin to list them here, but we can make a start with the face and the voice and a couple of dates: 1913 for the film, 1957 for the song recording. ‘We’ have been seen (and heard) for a long time, but also scarcely noticed at all. ‘We’ are black people in America and especially in the South; but the word may also call up everyone involved in the history and mythology of these matters, that is, most of us. If we learn how some people ‘have come to be seen’, we may learn something too about how we are seeing.