‘Hale County’ Director RaMell Ross Reflects on His Year on the Festival Circuit

Gotham Award winner explains why he doesn’t like labels and can’t wait for life to return to normal

Ramell RossSundance Film Festival 2018 Awards
George Frey/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutters

More than one year after winning a Special Jury Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, director RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will air on PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’ this coming February, marking a cap to its global tour.

Along the way, this elliptical, abstracted portrait of two Alabama families has won plaudits everywhere from Memphis to Montreal, and just recently took home top documentary honors at the Gotham Awards. A faculty professor at Brown University, Ross has accompanied his feature debut whenever possible.

Though he was unable to join his film at the Marrakech Film Festival, where it screens in The 11th Continent sidebar, Ross spoke with Variety from his home in Rhode Island shortly before boarding a flight to London to present the film anew.

What has it been like to live with this project for almost a year on the festival circuit?

It’s been incredibly fascinating. You know the film is such an open reflection for someone’s experiences with documentaries, communities of color, black folks, and the historic South, that it has [instigated] such wide-ranging conversations per region that it’s in, and per person that encounters it. I think the main through-line has been the difference between responses over the course of the year, which has been really rewarding.

Have any responses particularly stuck with you?

Yes, many. From people saying that they feel like voyeurs in someone’s life – specifically white folks, who have said that they’ve never seen this sort of stripped down, fundamental intimacy inside the black community or inside the black home – to folks of color who have commented on not having witnessed the way they see their own family members or experienced family life elevated to cinema, or seen on that screen. There have been some complicated responses – like folks saying that the film is incredibly black and that perhaps we avoided white people – and interesting ones, from people who didn’t realize there could be so much beauty in the basic.

Did any of those come as a surprise, or did you anticipate them?

When you make a film, specifically one with multiple access points for the audience, you just don’t know what to expect. When the film was completed, we were like, “We really, really like it, but we have no idea if other people will [as well].” Six or seven months into the film’s release and the tour, then you start to realize that it’s having a similar effect on people, and they’re articulating their relationship to it. But before that, you’re still in this unknown space where you question whether or not the film is doing well, or connecting on a larger scale.

As a first-time filmmaker, you honed and developed your own voice while working on this project. Are there elements of the film that today you would approach differently, now that you’ve continued to evolve and grow?

I don’t know. I think, sadly, everything! I think the film would try a lot harder to do certain things. In my opinion you can only do things during certain periods of your life. I’ve read more and I’ve watched these other films since I started and finished this project, so I don’t think if I began making that film now it would be even remotely the same. I can’t even anticipate how different it would be from that film that happened. In order to make “Hale County,” I had to be incredibly idealistic. [Now] I feel more connected to my point of view, which is probably a little more contained. Like when you write your second novel, it has more of your voice. You’ve seen your voice, and you’ve experienced the full execution of it in the confines of the project. I know even more what I’m interested in, so I could probably hedge toward that a little more rigorously.

Do you already know what that next project might be?

I do. I’m developing a project right now with Joslyn Barnes and Louverture Films, but I’m hesitant to talk too much about the details just so it could actually happen. “Hale County” happened before most of the people knew exactly how potentially big the film could be. 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. And when you’re shooting with Canon Mark III and an on-camera mic, it’s really hard for people to consider that would be something that would play in theaters and museums or travel around the world. If people knew that I was making a film that would indirectly bring up some of the race or visual issues of the place, it’s less likely that people would have been as friendly.

You work primarily as an educator and a photographer and almost came to filmmaking pragmatically – choosing the documentary form as the most effective frame for your work. Moving forward, will you define yourself as filmmaker?

Do I feel like a filmmaker? I don’t know, it’s weird. I do feel like a filmmaker, 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]. I don’t wake up and think about making films; I wake up and think about ideas and different ways of expressing things that seem to be fleeting, and finding forms for them. I don’t think that there’s anything more powerful artistically, as it relates to society and civilization, than the documentary film, or the idea of the document. We’ve put this premium on the idea of the document and truth, and its historical situation is completely unmatched. So I really love that predisposition of truth that people approach a documentary film with, [but as to myself,] the labels are really hard to deal with.

One label you cannot contest is award winner. You won a Jury Prize at Sundance and recently took home the Gotham Award for Best Documentary. How has it been to experience the awards circuit, which is its own unique world?

Honestly, the best part about winning awards is that it’s a site where people go to find work, to find stuff that they should see, because now it makes people want to watch the films. You read the description to “Hale County” and you’re like, “whaaat?” It’s something that you have to watch to understand, and so it’s a difficult film to sell. We got passed over by a lot of the distributors that have built-in platforms and built-in audiences, so it’s very much a word-of-mouth thing. Getting the Gotham and going up there and being able to say something that I think about often, which is the relationship between popular media and self-representation, and then people knowing that “Hale County” won that award, I feel like 4,000 more people will see the film. And that’s a lot of people. So I love being able to go up there and say something that I’m not sure someone else is thinking about, and then also knowing that’s going to get more eyes on the film.

You achieved an uncommon intimacy in “Hale County” by making your camera a constant companion, filming the subjects for hours at a time whenever you’d hangout, for several years. Has your relationship with the film’s subjects changed since you’ve taken the camera out of the equation?

I think the relationship has changed slightly, because I haven’t been able to hang out with them as much! [Laughs] I typically spend about half of the year in Alabama and half the year in Rhode Island, but because I’ve been travelling so much with the film I haven’t been there much. I think that’s the main shift that’s happened since then. I’m incredibly interested in Quincy and Daniel and Boosie and Mary as people— I’m as interested in their lives as I am of my other friends. So once all of this subsides a little bit, we’ll still be doing a lot of the same things. I think I might film a little bit, but I won’t feel the pressure that I had earlier. So I don’t know – this is a good question for one year from now, after life becomes more like as it was before. Then I can compare how things changed.