Winning the Sterling US Feature Award at Silverdocs was a surprise to directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, whose documentary October Country moved beyond the traditional three-act narrative with a layered character study of a low-income rural American family.
The portrayal is particularly intimate in that it follows Mosher’s own family. He is the eldest of three to a mother who admits to forfeiting her dreams to motherhood at an early age and having a knack for picking bad men. The same trait seemed to pass to her daughter Daneal, now the single and unemployed mother of a beautiful toddler named Ruby. Littlest is Desi, a sharp-minded but devastatingly sweet girl who despite being privy to child and domestic abuse and teen pregnancy, shows promise for breaking out of her family’s cycle.
I had the opportunity to meet with Palmieri and Mosher this weekend. Here’s what they had to say:
Q. When did you start the film? And what was your creative approach?
MP: We went back and visited Donal’s family in October 2006. Before we started making it, we thought it would be interesting to frame it from a Halloween perspective, from one Halloween to the next. Thought it would be interesting to explore the ghosts that haunt every day lives. We also thought it would be best to contain it inside one year, so knowing that we went back seasonally for six or seven days. Donal’s family is very open so they just immediately let us dive in.
Q. Why Halloween?
MP: Halloween is the best framework for examining the idea of every family has their ghosts. Everybody has ghosts in the closet that keep rattling around and keep people in these cycles they can’t get out of.
DM: And also visually… all the stuff that’s seething under the surface of American life gets celebrated in Halloween, so its a perfect setting. The seasonal metaphors are out in the open; people are doing it for you. And people reveal something inner about themselves. Its a perfect way of negotiating identity.
Q. I noticed a vivid representation of American symbols. Can you explain that creative choice?
MP: At heart, I think the film is about a working class family that no one would really ever consider turning a camera on and this is the hidden majority of our country.
DM: It’s just that region. A lot of rural America, there’s this huge pageantry. Everyone is wearing flags and patriotism. To me that’s a kind of Halloween. That’s the mask that America puts on. And so we thought we’d juxtapose that with Halloween imagery.
Q. The film does not follow a traditional three-act structure in which there is a built-in beginning and ending. What were some of the challenges in this more layered approach?
MP: The challenge in making a film like this is you are trying to tell multiple stories at the same time. But I think people actually like when there aren’t all the answers there; that people have to think a little bit. There is closure but the closure is that there isn’t closure in our lives. And that’s why we capped it off at the year because we could have kept going on forever. The drama keeps going and going. It’s more about what are the cycles inside of those dramas that keep it going.
Q. Did you have any ethical concerns, Donal, about going into your family and revealing their secrets to the world?
DM: There’s a serious issue in the film: child molestation. We had no idea that had been going on. So we were kind of stunned by that. But the family themselves don’t really hide it; they aren’t really shameful. The hardest part was talking to Desi about how she felt about this being shown to people. And she said: well, when my sister said these things were happening to her, nobody believed her but now they will because it’s in a film. To negotiate all the personal information, we just had to have a constant dialogue with the family.
Q. Do you think the family trusted Michael more because of Donal’s presence?
MP: I don’t think the film would have been the film it is without the triangulation of access. One filmmaker is simply a member of the family so you have that immediate sort of trust in place. As an outsider, there’s a certain thing that happens where the person is willing to confide more. A lot of times Donal would be out of the room and his family would tell me things that I don’t think they would normally ever say to him because he’s already a part of the history of the family; he knows their stories. They have to articulate the entire story to me.
DM: Especially Daneal, because she knows I have loyalties to her mother. If she was angered or felt alienated by the family, she would talk to Michael.
Q. What was it like co-directing and co-editing a film?
MP: I’ve directed a lot of stuff before this and I’ve always directed on my own. This is the first time I’ve ever engaged in a co-directing process on this sort of level. And from my experience, I think it makes me a better filmmaker because we have such shared ground but then we have such a difference. Donal has such a tremendous history in film theory and criticism and photography and I have my own strengths elsewhere and it just makes us a better single person. Sometimes in the editing process, its easier for me to instead of trying to explain what it is I am thinking, I need to show it in the imagery. It’s easer for me to just make it and say, here, this is what I mean. Whereas Donal is capable of articulating that verbally.
Q. What was your visual approach?
MP: One of the key ways the film is shot is drawn from visual photographs. Donal shot his stuff on a T4 camera with a flash (point and shoot) that had a certain kind of flash photography look that I wanted to try and recreate in a simple way with the camera. At night time, the way that light is very white and hot in the center of the frame. In terms of the rest, its more about looking for what is a appropriate for a given scene in a situation. But when you are making a film, when all you are doing is looking for how to articulate this idea of ghosts and hauntings, things naturally arise. The image of the smoking… to me that looks very ghostly.