NZIFF 51: Hale County This Morning, This Evening Director: RaMell Ross

Oscar-nominated Hale County is a visually compelling look at life in an unknown corner of the Deep South, and announces the arrival of an exciting new voice.

The debut film from African American filmmaker RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening follows the goings on in a rural community in Alabama’s Black Belt. A non-linear fly-on-the-wall doc, the only two subjects that really feature are university basketball player Daniel Collins and factory worker Quincy Bryant.

But feature is a strong word, as Ross has gone for a non-traditional approach – which Wired magazine said that this doco signalled a “new age of documentary” – and it may not be for all tastes.

Ross, who takes on the roles of director, writer, producer, cinematographer and editor here, filmed over five years, amassing 1300 hours of footage. He’s whittled it down to 76 minutes that showcases the mundane and magical through a fragmented and sometimes discordant lens.

It can be a struggle at times, while the time-lapse photography is beautifully shot it’s a bit over-used, and the slow pace at times can put you to sleep. There’s also the use of odd chapter titles like ‘What happens when all the Cotton is picked?’ or ‘Where does time reside?’ which leave you scratching your head.

Though Ross does show a unique eye and goes places other cinematographers or editors wouldn’t, which makes you sit up and take notice. There’s a sequence at a basketball game with a fast montage of ‘dunks’ that cut before they go in, with the final shot bouncing off the rim.

It’s choices like that, or super-slowed down and twisted audio, or filming the speed up shadows of an American football player, which reframe the normal as abnormal. It is fascinating and mesmerizing stuff, there’s a shot staring directly through a basketball hoop up at the night sky that’s stunning.

When Ross focuses on the people and not the objects or landscape the doco literally comes to life. Babies being born in candid hospital visits, church recitals, teen locker room shenanigans and just plain boredom on a Saturday night, it’s all relatable and captivating stuff.

Clayton Barnett