It's not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross' evocatively titled documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.
Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ballplayer. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross, this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more "traditional" subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town.
By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic -- a film in which its very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer's eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.