Date February 21, 2019
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Artist, scholar RaMell Ross heads to the Oscars with ‘Hale County’ up for best documentary

RaMell Ross, an assistant professor of visual art at Brown, is one of four Brunonians who stands to win a statuette – other nominees are first-year undergraduate Charlotte Silverman and two alumni.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It’s officially Oscar Week 2019, and RaMell Ross is bewildered by the number of suits he’s had to acquire for the occasion.

“I tend to wear things that are frayed and have holes in them,” Ross said on Wednesday, Feb. 20, as he deplaned in Los Angeles ahead of the film industry’s biggest annual social event. “Now, I have all these nice clothes for interviews and panels. I have a custom suit that fits me so perfectly that if I gain half a pound, the buttons won’t close.”

Equally amazing to Ross, an assistant professor of visual art at Brown University, is the very fact that he’s headed to the Academy Awards. He says his film “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” nominated this year for Best Documentary Feature, began as a humble experiment — an endeavor to marry his twin loves of photography and film in an attempt to convey the pace of everyday life in a rural, predominantly black Southern community.

When it was released and subsequently screened at film festivals all over the world, critics and filmmakers hailed “Hale County” as a genre unto itself, an unprecedented project that invites viewers not only to reflect on their unconscious racial biases but also to question the need for linear narratives in film. A New York Times critic found Ross’s film “impossible to adequately describe in critical prose” yet imbued with “poetic logic.”

“The film started so small, but it ended up being a comment on the whole idea of what we believe makes a documentary a documentary, and the filmmaking community really got behind it,” Ross said. “It’s way bigger than me now.”

Ross isn’t the only nominated documentary filmmaker with ties to Brown; in fact, Brunonians were involved in the making of four of the 10 documentary films up for awards. Another nominee for Best Documentary Feature, “RBG,” was produced by Betsy West, a Class of 1973 graduate. Another alumnus, 1978 graduate Jim Mittelberger, co-executive produced "End Game," nominated for Best Documentary Short. And first-year undergraduate Charlotte Silverman was an executive producer of “Period. End of Sentence.”, also nominated for Best Documentary Short (See sidebar).

With just days left before the 91st Academy Awards, which will air on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m., Ross shared thoughts about “Hale County,” his creative process and his teaching position at Brown.

How does it feel to be heading to the Oscars?

I don’t really quite have feelings about it, necessarily. I just have thoughts. Like: “This is unexpected.” And, “Wait, can we actually win? No, we can’t think that way, because that’s dangerous.”

You’re not preparing a speech, then?

No. We’ve won a couple of awards [for this film], and I’ve never had a speech prepared. There’s nothing worse than thinking deeply about what you’re going to say and then having that note, that carcass of a speech, sit dead in your pocket [if you don’t win]. I think it’s better to just think about some things you could say, or to let the sheer enthusiasm and shock and surprise propel what you say.

What inspired you to make “Hale County”?

I wish I had some great story about how I was sitting in an attic and had this red flash of insight where I thought, “I know what I’ll do: I’ll disrupt! I’ll resist!” But no. I just started to make a film.

My filmmaking process inherently extended from my photography work, which deals with the plurality of gaze — looking at my subject’s perspective and my own at the same time and observing how we see things differently, like a Rorschach test. I moved to Hale County to teach a two-week photography course, and then I was like, “I’ll move here.” It was a somewhat random decision. At that time, I was researching the history of the idea of “blackness,” what that means to people and how it has changed. So it was a good time to be in Hale County, because it is a predominantly black community.

What do you hope those who see the film walk away thinking about?

I hope that they walk away thinking. You know? There are so many films that you watch where you have a mostly aesthetic experience. Usually, your opinion of a film is trapped in your relationship with the major themes and the genre. It’s not allowed to be complex — it’s very much meant to be entertainment. This film doesn’t really fit into a genre, and the themes are open to interpretation. I hope someone would watch this film and leave thinking critically about anything they connected with.

Why did you choose to focus on the everyday lives of Hale County residents, rather than look for a story arc?

I think the scenes put into question which moments in life are the most meaningful and memorable. We tend to be prejudiced toward certain cultural milestones when we think about big moments. Our entertainment is, too. It’s hard for us to watch people doing something that’s as boring as the things we do in our normal lives. But what does that mean? It means that we understand them to be as default and regular as we are.

So the film underscores that, in many ways, we’re all alike?

Yes, and I think that’s important. The way in which we relate to people we don’t know is not the way in which we relate to ourselves and our families. Can we imagine that we would let a family member starve? No, because we know our family intimately. A lot of people who didn’t grow up in a place like Hale County might think they know these people and their lives because they’ve seen photographs and they’ve read about their struggles. But when a photograph or story replaces a personal encounter, it’s reductive. It simplifies the story of a person’s life.

You taught a photography course at Brown in Fall 2018. How does teaching fit into your creative process?

It keeps you fresh. There’s nothing worse than being old — except being old and out of touch. Ha! Talking to the students about their lives, their ideas, how they enter into the cultural photographic dialogue, it really keeps you in touch. You learn as much from them as they learn from you. I think the students here are some of the brightest, most sensitive, most conscious and awake students around. The atmosphere on campus, the enthusiasm students bring to class — I find it unprecedented.

Charlote Silverman and Betsy West
Photo at left: Courtesy of Charlotte Silverman
Right: Scott Kingsley / Brown University

Brown at the Oscars

RaMell Ross isn’t the only Brunonian Oscar nominee. Class of 1973 graduate Betsy West (right) produced and co-directed “RGB,” the acclaimed documentary examining the legacy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film is up for two awards, including Best Documentary Feature. Another alumnus, 1978 graduate Jim Mittelberger, co-executive produced "End Game," nominated for Best Documentary Short. And 2001 graduate Niija Kuykendall was the executive producer of "A Star is Born," which garnered seven nominations.

First-year undergraduate student Charlotte Silverman (left) was an executive producer for another Best Documentary Short nominee, “Period. End of Sentence.” According to Silverman, the film captures a venture she and her peers launched in high school called the Pad Project. “Our group learned about the issues and links between access to menstrual health products and access to education,” she said. “We felt horrified at the lack of discussion about this global issue.” Silverman’s group partnered with an Indian grassroots organization to purchase and install a sanitary pad manufacturing machine in a village outside Delhi, creating a women-run micro-economy there. Silverman says, “Our motto is, ‘A period should end a sentence. Not a girl’s education.’”