Hale County This Morning, This Evening
All hail this rhetorical question
Not since Samsara (cross-reference below) has there been a documentary whose words saying precious little, nonetheless, speak volumes. And like Ron Fricke’s magical-world cinematic masterpiece, music plays a prominent role in binding together the thoughts, moods, feelings and situations that permeate this production from first frame to last.
The original score (Alex Somers, Scott Alario, Forest Kelley) offers a wide variety of hues and textures from an infectiously happy solo flute through calming guitar; “Meko’s Blues (written and engagingly performed by Tomeko Elliott) is at one with cultural traditions during one of several spectacular captures of the heavens above. Yet the musical payoff has to await the closing credits where Billie Holiday’s unbeatable rendition of “The Stars Fell on Alabama” aurally summed up RaMell’s vision to an unforgettable T. If ever there was a movie based on a song, this could well be it.
And so over the course of five years, the good people of Hale County are recorded at church, on basketball courts, in Selma University, enduring a nose-ring piercing, giving birth, burying one who never had a chance at life, dealing with relatives, bemoaning plant work (catfish), having silly fun (the hands game is a hoot), moving furniture, a very wet baptism and demons being screamed away in the name of the Lord.
Unlike many other films this year (cross-reference below), run-ins with white law enforcement are quietly alluded to rather than angrily seen. Here, understatement works remarkably well.
But when the camera is not capturing his obviously willing subjects, RaMell turns his lens skyward, flooding the screen with spectacular shots of an eclipse, the sun, moon and stars, readily mixing in smoky vegetation and clouds to magical effect (“A fairy land where no one else could enter”).
Another bit of cinematic wizardry comes with the insertion of a long-ago, black-and-white (in more ways than one) minstrel taking a few “between-the-trees” looks at the proceedings. Digging into the toolkit of both time-lapse and fast-forward image manipulation adds still more to the visual bounty.
The vignettes are set up by a series of rhetorical questions (just text, black and white—notably “How do we not frame someone?”).
Viewers will have to find their own answers in this remarkable “lifescape” that honestly lays bare a community, without ever overtly expressing the auteur’s point of view.
Three Identical Strangers
One big family
Following on the heels of Joel Edgerton’s gritty tale of homosexual aversion therapy (cross-reference below) comes Wardle’s very disturbing documentary of three identical boys being purposely separated at birth in order to become fodder for a “nature versus nurture” study without informing any of the parents—not to mention the boys when they were old enough to understand the truth.
It fell to a chance encounter along with a curious case of mistaken identity to bring Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran into personal contact as the curly haired young men were 19—all born July 12, 1961.
Yes, all of those involved in this “experiment” were Jews, as was the principal investigator, Dr. Peter Newbauer—an Austrian-born psychiatrist who very likely was inspired to strike out on his own, knowing of Nazi “twin” experiments purportedly seeking the same “knowledge”. The wicked witch of the triplets (and many twins) comes in the institutional form of Louise Wise Services, knowingly aiding and abetting these unsanctioned frauds by purposely keeping the adoptive parents in the dark.
The irony of this sort of human manipulation in the land of the free by a refugee from Holocaust-ridden Germany is astonishing. Somewhere, Hitler and his cronies are cheering the good doctor on. The final report—through clever legalese by the institutors (including Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services), Newbauer having died in 2008—will not see the light of day until 2066. But who is anyone kidding? The sample was so small (thank goodness) that nothing definitive can emerge. All that is left are so many ruined lives (one of the triplets ending his misery at his own hand).
Wardle’s production serves as a timely cautionary tale in this era of fake news, global warming (or not!) and climate change where those in authority need much stronger checks and balances if travesties’ such as these will continue to happen virtually unchallenged. JWR