Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.

still/here (2001) [black-and-white]

The key to this piece seems to be the duality that structures it and is suggested in the title: the empty stillness of the frame, which alights on fixed shots of buildings (often ruined) in the filmmaker’s hometown of St Louis, and the inscription of unseen people into this space via other means. Thus there’s not just the worn-out billboard poster image of Angela Bassett, but also the sounds of voices on the soundtrack (which rarely matches up precisely with what we see), and just the very idea of these spaces as lived-in, if not currently: these are houses, cinemas, places of work, from which the (Black, African-American) bodies have been erased and only left as a sort of phantasmic presence. The experience of watching the film is very much akin to a lot of slow cinema (works by James Benning come to mind particularly), and if you can get into its rhythms, it’s sort of fascinating to contemplate.

Director Christopher Harris; Cinematographers Harris and Joel Wanek; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 March 2019.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

I feel like I’ve seen a lot of films in recent years try to grapple both with what it means to make a documentary (the responsibilities of the documentary filmmaker, for example) and with how to represent a place fully in a textured, convincing way. There was an on-stage discussion of the film after the screening I attended, and the filmmaker touched on the idea of a ‘Black banal’ which is so little seen in filmmaking (where stories by Black filmmakers, and about Black people in the United States, often instead feel compelled to directly address various topics of political and historical violence in a didactic way), and this film seems to exemplify that idea of exalting the daily and quotidian. There are still moments of learning (children running around, or socialising with their parents), but also of joy and profound sadness, play and work — moments which capture life in this part of Alabama — though this is a film made by a photographer, so they are often beautiful and transporting even though they sometimes don’t seem to be addressing any big topics. Still, there is imbrication between pure visual beauty and the everyday — a gorgeous shot of light dappled through tree leaves and the thick acrid smoke from burning rubber tyres is overlaid by the sound of a local man asking the director what the hell he’s filming (presumably because it’s not what most people would expect a documentary maker to be shooting).

Hale County This Morning, This Evening film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer RaMell Ross; Writers Ross and Maya Krinsky; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 March 2019.


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