Tribeca Cinemas Presents Doc Series:
Monday, October 18, 2010
The Tribeca Cinemas
bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.
Note: This piece originally ran in promotion of the film's theatrical release in February 2010.
October Country is a unique documentary that uses the themes of Halloween and, in particular, ghosts to give voice to a working-class family in Mohawk Valley, NY. The Mosher family had long been a subject of Donal Mosher's evocative photography and writing when he met director Michael Palmieri; together, they co-wrote and -directed this documentary that offers the viewer a very personal glimpse of the struggles the Moshers face every day. The evocative and often startlingly beautiful result is a portrait of a family haunted by the Vietnam War, cycles of abuse, and financial woes.
TribecaFilm: How did you realize that you would make a really great film together, with Donal's photography and essays and Michael's experience directing?
Michael Palmieri: The idea of doing it together sort of dawned on us essentially at the same time... I was exposed to Donal's photography at the same time he was exposed to my work, and then we were thinking, "Well, maybe we could do that." And we just went for it. We didn't really know what would occur.
TribecaFilm: Donal, were you at all wary of documenting your family on film?
Donal Mosher: No, not really. Once they agreed to being in front of the camera—I mean, they already had a certain awareness that images of them were going out into the public anyway. But no, I was never wary because at the end, once we really got engaged and the stories were very personal, we really began a dialogue with them about, you know, that this is going into public, and gave them the final decision... Anything we ended up putting in the film, they got to say yes or no to. Every member of the family got to agree and have the final say on [it], so I think there was a degree of trust going through the whole project.
TribecaFilm: So the boundaries were established as you went along?
MP: Yeah, although it, to us, seemed somewhat boundary-less in a way... I mean, it's always a dialogue when you're working with people who are allowing you to film them. There [are] obvious times when it's just not the right time to film, and then there's also times when you could be filming that you, as a human being, don't want to film. So there's a lot of these things that are in play.
TribecaFilm: Can you discuss the conscious choice not to use narration and what sort of effect that has on the final product, on the viewer?
DM: For one thing, I think narration is—it's a brilliant tool if it's really well done. 9 times out of 10, when I hear narration, I just squirm. I think it's really limiting and often badly written, and so that's [the] number 1 reason right there.
MP: We didn't want to spoon feed everything to people, and I think that's often what happens with narration, so we tried very hard at the beginning of telling the story that it was clearly revealing itself to us as we were filming it, that [the movie] relied on storytelling and relied on the audience putting two and two together. Narration... in this film wouldn't have done anything but serve to distance the audience, and we wanted people to feel very close and right in there with the family, as if they were sitting at the kitchen table. So it was a conscious choice.
TribecaFilm: I read or perhaps saw in one of your video interviews that some audience members actually felt uncomfortably close.
DM: There is pressure from some response[s] for my presence to be there to open the family up, or to guide people through, but I think that's a different story. As soon as I'm in there—and it's a valid story—but the stories that are in October Country just have so much more social relevance, I think, than the story of the artist/son and artist/son['s] collaborator/lover coming back to look at the family... What we wanted to do was give more the feeling of what it's like to be living in that valley, under those pressures, in that environment, and so the whole hope of escape rests more on Desi, who is the one character who engages outside—who engages the camera, who engages the world, you know? If anyone's going to make it out, it seems that she is the one who will...
MP: It's a question of what story you want to tell, you know? I mean, if you're trying to reveal as much as possible to an audience what it's like to be a part of the family, then that's the story that's being told, and that's where you go. Narration just never seemed like a logical decision. We also did try, for example, putting Donal in the film initially—there are a couple scenes where Dottie is talking to him and we're filming it. And what we realized [was] that it became a totally different movie because of all a sudden it became a private conversation—conversation of the known, between family members—whereas when Donal's out of the equation and I'm the person filming, it's almost like they're having to explain their situation more clearly and more succinctly to us on this side [of the camera]—to me, because I don't know the family history. So it actually ends up being of greater value [to] me, learning their story, as well as for the audience.
TribecaFilm: What's interesting is you say that Desi is the one that carries the hope of getting out but, Donal, you have as well.
DM: It's true, but... there are background stories that are complicated. I only grew up half, really, in that region. I grew up as much in North Carolina as I did in the Mohawk Valley. And I was an odd kid, I was a gay kid... I was never quite in the [same] circumstances, certainly not [under] the same pressure that the women in the family [were under], and the cycles that trap them were never bound around me in the same way, so that alone [was] a factor in deciding how much of my presence is relevant to the story, we decided. And again, it's a documentary; everything unfolded in time as you see it, but it's still an interpretation and... we decided that the precarious hope [was] for Desi, you know, because it is ambiguous. It really speaks much more volume about how intense that environment is, and how heavy it weighs on a person.
TribecaFilm: The cinematography and direction really reflects that because it's so close. I mean, it's literally haunting. There's the symbolism, of course, of ghosts and Halloween, and I think the cinematography and the direction have so much to do with that. Can you talk about how you got that feeling of a portrait, an evocative photo?
MP: Well, the genesis point of where the film begins is obviously in Donal's photographs of his family, so as a cinematographer, first I'm looking at the character of those photographs, but more the mood and the feeling I'm getting from the photographs. And when we talked about the project, and I learned more about his family through his writing and through his photos, it was really clear that there were certain things that we were going to be looking at when going to film his family. So it's one thing to go and talk to Donal's family; it's an entirely other thing to go armed with the idea of, "How am I going to situate this in the context of ghosts or hauntings or cycles?" Then you end up having, as a cinematographer, so much more visually, because you're thinking about that all the time as well. You're always thinking [in] the metaphorical, visual way. And the region itself, it's beautiful and it feels haunted. It feels essentially on the edge of collapse in a lot of ways. But that doesn't make it ugly; it makes it quite beautiful as well, in a lot of context[s]. So I think it's just this sort of back and forth with negotiating all those things and trying to capture it on film, and it just kind of happens naturally.
TribecaFilm: I noticed that your blog itself, Donal, is called GhostType. Do relate to that as well? What does that mean to you?
DM: Well, I'm certainly a product of that environment, and growing up with Denise, you know, who was always really witchy, and my grandmothers were witchy... There's also this idea, and I really latched onto it in college, from a book called Ghostly Matters by Avery Gordon that is really this look at when people have limited presence in society, they start feeling like ghosts in their own lives, and she addresses a lot of contemporary cultural production from that lens. And between having just a general geek love of ghosts and gothic material, and then this concept came together, and that's really the underlying force behind the majority of my work and also became the focal point that Mike used when he was filming and then brought his own interpretation, and his own visual style leapt from that.
TribecaFilm: What's it like reading reactions to the movie, which seem, at the very least, classist? I read on IMDb someone comparing your family to a real-life Addams family.
MP: I haven't heard that one.
DM: No, but I kind of like that one. [laughs] It's tricky, it's really tricky... Mostly they're really positive and they really seem to respond... to our interpretation of the family, but occasionally there are attacks or it's read as exploitation... people come at it with their cultural lens and you can't fight it unless you can engage in a dialogue. And whenever we have felt under attack or it's been painful, usually the thing I go for is looking at the language. We never use the term "white trash," but people do use it when they're attacking us of exploiting [the family]. And if you can point that out to people, if you can respond to them on a level like, "Well, you know what, there's some classist stuff in your language," we both begin to understand [each other].
MP: The first review we ever got was in Variety, and they just bashed us. They said it was exploitative and all this sort of stuff, and it was really like, "Whoah!" I mean, we really were broadsided about it and by it, and there was one thing where they were talking about the dilapidated dwelling of the Mosher family, and I just thought, "God, that's just such classist bullsh*t, because, dilapidated according to whom?" You know? That house is beautiful.
TribecaFilm: Like the close-ups of the tchotchkes and stuff. I loved it.
DM: In the end, it's just this interpretation, and you hope you get to have a voice in response, and then it becomes dialogue and then it's productive, and that's just the best that you can hope for in these circumstances.
MP: A friend of ours once told us that there's—you make the private film, right, and then it goes out into the public, and there's the public film. Well, we made this film with the Moshers, and the Moshers fully and totally supported the making of the film and supported the end product of the film, but now there's this public film, and there are these whole other things that come out of that, and that's a really interesting thing to try to negotiate and understand. It's an evolving process.
Tribeca Cinemas Presents Doc Series:
Monday, October 18, 2010
The Tribeca Cinemas bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.
Visit the official website of October Country for more information on the Donal family, photos, the trailer, and more.