RaMell Ross is the curator of Full Frame’s annual thematic program, in which prominent filmmakers explore themes that inevitably reflect their own work. Ross’s seven-film program, “Some Other Lives of Time,” explores poetic approaches to storytelling and temporality—the sort that earned Ross a 2019 Oscar nomination for Hale County This Morning, This Evening, after it won the Grand Jury Prize at Full Frame last year. 

Before he became an acclaimed filmmaker, Ross started his career as a photographer. In 2009, he moved to a rural African-American community in Hale County, Alabama, for what was supposed to be a two-week teaching gig. Instead, he stuck around. While teaching photography and coaching basketball, he developed a friendship with two young men, Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins, and began to film their lives with his small DSLR camera, accumulating thirteen hundred hours of footage over the course of five years. 

The resulting eighty-minute film consists of impressionistic shots loosely linked by bits of sensory logic—slants of light, acoustics, sweat dripping onto the ground transposed with rain—and a series of silent-movie-style title cards that offer, in Ross’s idiosyncratic voice, questions such as, “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” and “How do we not frame someone?”

Ross’s visionary ideas about narrative gently capsize the documentary tradition. As an intimate yet panoramic view of a community, Hale County feels radical in its formal imagination, and because it does something rare in cinema, which is to centralize the African-American experience without painting it with totalizing brushstrokes. When drama bubbles up—a family tragedy, Daniel’s desire to play pro basketball—Ross’s steady camera bears witness to these moments without trying to spin them into a conventional narrative arc. The result is an experimental film that feels both communal and diaristic, written in a language that collapses the distance between subject and documentarian. 

We recently spoke with Ross about why there are so few American directors on his thematic program, how he came around to using title cards in Hale County, and how his first career as a photographer shaped his second one as a filmmaker.

INDY: Does Full Frame come up with the theme for the curated program, or did you brainstorm it together? 

RAMELL ROSS: Sadie Tillery had some ideas about what she was interested in, and I joined in with my voice, and it shifted a bit. It became a broader concept. Credit is always shared at Full Frame, there’s no single author. 

The films you selected are almost all by directors who aren’t American. 

Hallelujah, you know? Like, Jesus!

What do you think non-American filmmakers do differently, in terms of your ideas about non-linear storytelling and constructing notions of time? 

For me, what’s interesting about films are the mystery of them, the ability to embody something and put it into something that’s not written language. By no means is this all American films, but there’s something about filmmakers that are not in the same capitalist—god, I hate sounding like a Marxist on the phone, it’s the worst… There is something about filmmakers outside of this system that rewards you for making films that are simpler than the medium allows you to be. The medium is so open, and yet we still make the same kinds of films around the same kinds of issues or structures. A lot of the best-of lists we see are replete with films from the U.S., and cinema is a global thing. We’re not the center of the world. 

I’m interested in making films that register on different levels with different audiences and don’t do what a lot of films, specifically American films, do, which is to reduce everything to a feigned total understanding, where the person is supposed to walk away having seen and understood everything. It’s more about having an experience of a place with people that is authentic and mysterious and makes a person wonder and want to return and do the work of understanding.

Both Hale County and Koyaanisqatsi seem to require a certain measure of capitulation. Had you seen it before making Hale County? 

The whole “Qatsi” trilogy was a huge influence on Hale County, probably the biggest influence. I watched it many, many years ago. After coming back to it, I started researching who this guy was that made this left-field, phenomenal piece. [Godfrey Reggio] had said something like, language can no longer address the complexity of the human being in society. And that stuck with me, specifically as a person of color. The dialogues that we have about race, and the way we talk and think about things, is so partisan. It’s difficult to get around the potholes that are embedded in the way we are doing it or saying it. How do you apply this sort of logic to race, or to other things? 

Araya uses these poetic, omnipresent voiceovers, and I wondered if there was a relationship between that and your use of title cards in Hale County

It allows you a certain amount of control. In Araya, he repeats the same phrases over and over, and there’s a repetition in the gestures and the activity of the people inside the film. So, there’s a parallel there, but then, the form of the film begins to embody the activity itself. Voiceover and title cards, when done right, can do things that are magical. They can reshape the piece to be as idiosyncratic as the content itself, if it’s as nuanced. Because voiceover is so common, and title cards are historically common, they fall into easy modes of narration. But, depending on how you use them, they can truly shape the piece in an interesting way. 

How far into the editing process of Hale County did you introduce them? Or did you know from the beginning that you were going to use title cards? 

Oh, I was completely against them! I was against a couple of things. Hale County was born out of very specific rules on how to speak in a very specific language that forces you to engage in a very specific way. I edited the film, but I had an editing team, with Joslyn Barnes and Maya Krinsky and Rob Moss, and after I made an edit, we would try to figure out what stuff was working. And we realized, really late in the game—I’d probably say the last two, three months, maybe even last month, because we were on a Sundance deadline—that the film was working, but something will leave a trace in your mind, and if you move on to something else, you’re still dealing with what happened a second ago. 

We realized that was happening a bunch, and some of the images needed space. We needed to allow it to be cumulative. Joslyn and Maya thought that the writing I do should be included in the film, but I didn’t want that because I wanted it to be all visuals. But, because we were thinking this was going to be an issue, we decided to look at the silent film structure, because we had recently put in Bert Williams clip. Then we were like, silent films have title cards, and what if we put some in? 

When you say writing, were these notes you were taking along the process? 

I do a bunch of poetry and prose and random note-taking. I guess most photographers are failed writers, they say.

Le Quattro Volte director Michelangelo Frammartino was also a photographer before he became a filmmaker, and I wonder how this shapes his work, and yours. 

The photographic cinematic is a way to increase complexity and invite more poetic logic, instead of strictly serving narrative and neutering the images. Watching Le Quattro Volte, you realize there’s a certain type of patience someone has. It makes so much sense that he was a photographer. It’s a sensibility, a style of looking, an ability to see narrative in a more nuanced and symbolic and expansive way. Not just something where there’s a clear beginning and end, not to infer narrative—I think that’s a photographic thing. 

I watched your new short, Easter Snap, yesterday. Was that also shot in Hale County? 

Yeah. There are so many rules in Hale County, and one of them was, no scenes, just one shot and be done. I break every rule, just by default of trying to make the best film possible, but that was one day in 2014 or 2015, and it was so crazy and rollercoaster-y that I couldn’t just take one shot out of it to put in Hale County

Knowing that a film is a documentary can prepare us to receive it as objective or truthful, which can often be a flawed framework. Do nonlinear films help to shift notions of objectivity? 

I think being predisposed to encounter something as a truth is a wonderful thing. I think the problem is more that the audience is not educated to know that the truth that they’re getting is a wildly subjective truth. I think that most audience members watch something and don’t realize that the films are built the same way that, you know, box office films are built, which is having a whole lot of people think about and situate every scene and every cut to hit an emotion and to do all these things that undermine the way in which a person is encountering it. I don’t think that anything should necessarily change, but I think that we should be more honest about the propaganda nature of the things we’re putting forth, and still be able to acknowledge that this is a singular instance of truth, as opposed to something that is beyond the individual’s capacity.