Gorgeously shot and ethically problematic, “October Country” is a feel-bad film through and through. Chronicling a year in the life of a low-income Mohawk Valley family beset by external hardships and shockingly bad decision-making, the docu straddles the line between unflinching intimacy and invasive exploitation. A nearly unrelenting sense of despair is alleviated through the poetic grace of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s camerawork, and the pic should see solid play on the festival circuit (it picked up the top prize at SilverDocs).
Living in two neighboring houses are four generations of the Mosher family, ranging from a hardened Vietnam vet to an infant (the latter a result of second-generation teenage pregnancy), as well as a second generation of abusive absentee fathers. Excluded from this crowded, bickering environment is a Wiccan aunt who camps out in cemeteries with a videocamera; included is a troubled foster child who promises the family he will eventually let them down, and does.
Theirs is a hard life indeed, and the film should be commended for spotlighting the oft-ignored scourge of rural poverty. Nonetheless, the sheer hopelessness the subjects profess sometimes actually seems disproportionate to their circumstances, and can become deadening over the film’s running time. The lone moments of joy and levity originate with a charming, precocious preteen, far more clever and self-assured than her elders, and the aforementioned foster child, who at least displays a certain spark of vitality, even if it’s criminal in intent.
One of the two directors is a member of the immediate family, though his existence goes curiously unmentioned in the film. His presence protects the project from charges of exploitation, though at times it’s hard to explain why the subjects are spilling their guts to a camera and not a sympathetic therapist. Montages of the Moshers’ dilapidated dwelling introduce a note of queasy voyeurism, which later comes to a head when a very young girl is prompted by one of the directors to speak about her own molestation. Here one is torn between anger at the fact of the girl’s victimization and anger at the filmmakers for not having the decency to turn off the camera.
There’s no denying the helmers’ impressive technical chops, however. According to the credits, the film is adapted from Donal Mosher’s series of photographs, and this starts to make sense when one gets a look at the breathtaking images of the surrounding landscape.