The 2018 Rencontres Internationale du Documentaire de Montreal (RIDM) took viewers on an unconventional cinematic journey. In ReMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening the director takes a job as a teacher and basketball coach in small-town Alabama, while Distant Constellation sees Shevaun Mizrahi visiting residents in a Turkish retirement home. Such themes may not be typical subject matter for the big screen, but anything goes at RIDM, the documentary film festival that brings stories from every nook and cranny of the globe to theatres around Montreal.
Hale County is Ross’ portrait of a small, predominantly-black town in rural Alabama. Filmed over the course of five years, Ross accumulated more than a thousand hours of footage. The result is an intimate and impressionistic picture of life in Hale County. Viewers watch grandmothers play and banter with grandchildren and men stay up late playing video games. The sounds of teenage boys yearning to make it as basketball players, hope and doubt mingling in their voices, echo throughout. Hale County follows a child named Kyrie as he grows up, from the crib to a small plastic basketball hoop of his own. There is a certain tenderness immanent in every situation and every shot.
In a post-screening Q&A, Ross explained that his emphasis on tenderness was intentional: He wanted to defy traditional narratives of blackness in America. The documentary does not gloss over systemic injustice—the red and blue lights of police cruisers lurk in the backgrounds of multiple scenes—but nor does it dwelt upon it. Rather than the typical essentializing narratives of oppression, which Ross only half-jokingly called ‘trauma-porn,’ Hale County shows the real lives of real people, illuminated equally by beauty and pain.
Distant Constellation takes the viewer to an entirely different world: A retirement home for minorities in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Mizrahi’s patient camera captures the testimony of various residents, and the results are amusing, insightful, and sometimes heartbreaking. Two friends ride an elevator up and down, just to chat; a stuttering ex-photographer manages to take a photo out the window. One woman recalls her childhood experience of the Armenian genocide. Best of all, a man proposes to Mizrahi mid-interview.
“You’re very nice to me,” he says. “And, besides, I’ll die before you anyways.”
Outside the windows of the nursing home, an immense construction project is taking place, laying the groundwork for a massive skyscraper. In the Q&A portion, Mizrahi described her desire to construct a visual dialectic between two worlds: The realm of memories within the home and the rapidly modernizing face of urban Turkey just across the street.
The dialectic between nation and citizen is one with pointed political implications: Turkey’s surge toward modernization has left the country in an economic crisis, while Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic government has censored dissent and persecuted minorities. To even acknowledge the Armenian genocide is prohibited, and Mizrahi duly gives a measure of anonymity to her subjects, never revealing their names or the home’s location. This context elevates Distant Constellations from simply an interesting art film to a radical tribute to memory.
Mizrahi, like Ross, touches on such political realities obliquely. Both Hale County and Distant Constellation seek to recover what lies at the bottom of political, historical and geographical circumstances: That is, the people themselves.
By slowing down, taking a deep breath, and really listening, each film bestows its narrative power to those in front of the lens. In an age dominated by visual culture, Misrahi and Ross have each sought to defy the standard subject-object relations of documentary filmmaking.
“I wanted to avoid the traditional use of photography as an objectifying lens,” said Ross.
Ross’ choice to privilege his subjects’ perspectives is as political as it is aesthetic. Depicting very different circumstances, the films are united in their reminder that behind every headline, every stereotype, and every work of art, lies a human face.