By Jeff Morris (Cincinnati, OH)
This movie was amazing, breathtaking, unique, groundbreaking—more a poem of imagery than what anyone has come to expect from a documentary. The film may be very off-putting for many people. So much is different about this movie than about anything else in the genre. There is dialogue between the characters in the film, but the dialogue is mostly extraneous to what is being done. To tell the truth, I probably only understood about 10% of the dialogue spoken in the film as the southern accents of the characters were thick. Although I didn’t understand the dialogue itself, the scenes were not about the dialogue.
The movie was not about telling a story but instead paints a picture of the atmosphere of the area where the film takes place. This is another facet of the film which may be off-putting for a casual viewer. There is no plot to this movie. There is no story. No rising action. No denouement. The film works more like a photograph of life in Hale County during the 5 years that filming took place than a narrative of anything specific which occurred during this time period. Another thing that someone used to watching documentaries may come to expect would be character development within a film. Usually, when we watch a film, we expect the characters to grow or adapt to their experiences encountered throughout the course of the film. Nothing like this happens in this film.
We are introduced to the characters as the character name appears on the screen when they are first introduced, but the characters themselves are not viewed as characters as we have become accustomed to. They are more like ideas or moods throughout the film. If a certain character is on screen, we have a sense of trying to get ahead in life. If another character is on screen, we get a sense of innocence. Another, responsibility. It is not until further reflection that we realize that the characters are being used in this way, but the characters themselves and what we know about the characters become part of the scenery and the atmosphere of this film.
The above observations are not criticisms of the film. Although they seem opposite of what a good movie would have, in this film it all works intelligently and perfectly. The fact that this is so opposite of what one would expect in a film makes it unique. The way that the atmosphere of the low-income section of Hale County in the American South is presented in a way without story is groundbreaking. Beyond the unique approach to creating a film, another strong point in this film is its use of imagery.
The filmmaking is beautiful and relevant to the scenes being shown. One scene shows an idyllic drive down a beautiful main street in the area with stores and cars lining the sides of the road. People are outside of the cars, everyone looks friendly. A church looms in the distance. The camera shot looks washed out though, as if the cinematographer did not know what he was doing with the lighting. But this is far from the case though. The cinematographer knew exactly what he was doing with every second of the film. Perhaps this shot was washed out because this film shows anything but the idyllic main street USA.
The film is about struggle and oppression and community and shared experiences. Other shots in the film are unusual but beautiful in their own poetic way. One scene shows a young child running back and forth across a living room in a messy apartment. As the scene starts, the viewer smiles as the child seems to be having fun just running across the room. As the child runs back across the room again and again, only stopping briefly to catch his breath, the camera somehow able to catch the sweat dripping down the child’s stomach, we are suddenly empathizing with the child, feeling the hopelessness of trying your hardest to accomplish a task with no clear goal. The entire movie is created through images such as this. The images intertwine with one another in a way which ultimately creates a stunning portrait of Hale County. This is the best documentary of the year by far and perhaps the best film of the year period.