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The simplest way to describe “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” — and maybe the best way, since it’s a film of elemental radiance — is to say that it’s a documentary put together like a series of photographs. In this case, the photographs are filmed images, so they in effect come to life. The director, RaMell Ross, moved to Hale County, Alabama, in 2009 to work as a basketball coach and photography teacher, and the film is his impressionistic portrait of the life he found there — a caught-on-the-fly tapestry of experience. James Agee and Walker Evans shot some of their most famous images in Hale County (named for a Confederate officer; pop. 16,000), and Ross’s film could be considered a raw ragged lyrical answer to their mythologies. Filmed over several years, “Hale County” is a diary of a time, place, and culture (African-American life in what’s left of the rural South, much of it stranded on the edge of poverty), and you could call it a transcendental scrapbook, because it wipes away the muck of subjectivity that guides most movies. It turns the audience into direct receptors of experience.
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Film - Landscape - Hale - County - Jury
It’s worth noting where a film like this one fits into the larger landscape. “Hale County” won a Special Jury Award for creative vision at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and it then played for one week on four screens in September; it’s the kind of documentary-as-lyric-collage-poem that’s destined, at best, to find a sliver of an audience. Yet the movie has won year-end attention (it made this year’s Oscar documentary short list), and once you let yourself glide onto its wavelength, it’s got a cosmically becalmed addictive quality.
As a filmmaker, Ross keeps surprising you — you never know what the next image will...
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