Aesthetic Voodoo: An Interview with the filmmakers of "October Country"

October Country follows a year in the life of the Moshers, residents of New York State's economically depressed Herkimer Valley. Co-director Donal Mosher escaped the region to pursue a career in photography, though one of his most notable projects documents the travails of his family back home. In the original photo series "October Country," Mosher's images of modestly decorated households, empty factory lots, turning foliage and Colonial graveyards convey a post-rural, post-industrial landscape endowed with a eerily gothic splendor. Co-director Michael Palmieri brought his background in experimental and music video to coax Mosher's work into a cinematic dimension. The result, a breathtaking work, offers new aesthetic possibilities in depicting working class American reality. The film endows more empathy and dignity than could ever be found in white trash reality TV, while bringing touches of stylization (i.e. Halloween party scenes shot in ghostly slow-motion) not found in more vanilla strains of social observation documentary. Hackles have been raised, however, at these gestures of aestheticism, as well as the conscious exclusion of Donal from the family proceedings on-screen.  These issues were raised with the directors in the conversation that follows.

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KEVIN LEE: Donal, why do you not appear in this film about your family?

DONAL MOSHER: When we first approached the film, we weren't sure how it would unfold, and I was in the film. But as the stories began to emerge in front of the camera, the stories that my family faced in their daily lives were far more compelling than the story of me as an artist returning to interpret my family. My presence in the film would sort of give you a way out, that someone got out of the conditions, the cycles, the environment that my family lives in. And we didn't want to give that feeling. We wanted to give the feeling of what it was like to be living in those circumstances. The character of my niece Desi, she is really young, really strong. If anyone is going to escape, it's going to be Desi. So if I am not in the film, or peripheral enough to say, "This is the family, here's the key," and step back, then any hope for change and leaving this metaphorical October Country rests on Desi.

LEE: What was the family's response to the two of you filming them over the course of a year?

MICHAEL PALMIERI: Bringing a camera into a room is like bringing a giant elephant, and we weren't sure how they'd respond to the giant elephant. But it was welcomed, and it was a completely natural process. I think it took about two hours before I pulled the camera out and started filming, and they were very accustomed to it.

LEE: Let's talk about your editing process. Did you edit as production went along, or did you wait until all the footage was filmed?

PALMIERI: Because we didn't know what stories would unfold, we started to analyze what stories seemed to be coming out of the footage after the first time we visited.  And then when we went back the second time we were armed with certain thoughts that the existing footage was speaking to us about. And at that point, new stories were developing, and it became very clear what series of stories were unfolding in front of us. And it was always meant to be a multiple storyline piece.

MOSHER: We'd go back and shoot, then come back and work to pay the bills and pay for the film. But we immediately started fine-cutting, because we really wanted to see the full power, or lack of power, that a scene might have. But really it was only after the last autumn that we sat down and brought the edit together.

PALMIERI: It unfolds in a sequential manner, so that it is edited from front to back in the order it was filmed. But it was tricky because we had so little footage. Doing a rough cut wasn't sufficient for this sort of film, because a rough cut doesn't give you a sense of emotional content of a scene; it gives you the sense of, "okay, we have this stuff and it's here." But we had to edit every scene that we had all the way to total perfection to see what the content of the scene could be. And only then could we take it out or keep it. It's a little bit of a different way of considering an edit. But ultimately for a film of this kind it was the route to go.

LEE: Donal, let's talk about your background of photographing your hometown, what sort of aesthetic you developed in your work that eventually led to this film.

MOSHER: I was studying American labor and visual cultural history at the Art Institute of San Francisco. It was a period when I was really responding to intimate flash photography. Photographers like Nick Waplington, Richard Bellingham and Martin Parr, British photographers. Each one has their own sensibility, and there's definitely a class position or irony, but a loving irony toward their subject. That was a big influence on the initial photo project. At the same time I was also influenced by Martha Rossler, and she was so intent about context, and that if you're putting a subject in print or on screen, you have to provide a living context for them, so you don't make an empty icon out of them. So I started writing about it, and that was the basis for the photo approach.

LEE: Michael, when you came along and discovered this work, what about it moved you and how did you get to thinking that there should be a film project?

PALMIERI: We embarked on it at the same time. My background is completely different on some level, though we had the same appreciation for certain photographers, which is how when we first met, why we continued talking to each other. The first time we met we talked about Helen Levitt and how much we loved her photographs. Beyond that, Donal's photographs tell a story on their own, and when you read the captions underneath the photographs there's so much there that I was personally drawn to. At the same time Donal got to know my work, which is more stop-motion art films, and eventually moved towards music videos and short films. And we thought, why don't we try going in and filming his family and try to take some of the ideas that are in the photographs with his family and expand them into an entirely different context?  I think there were a lot of things in the photographs—for example ghosts and hauntings and stuff like that—that really resonate in a lot of Donal's work, that we were really trying to get across.

LEE: Where does this supernatural element to the film come from? Was it inspired by Donal's aunt Debbie, who practices Wiccan and photographs ghosts in graveyards after dark?

MOSHER: She was a huge influence on me as a kid, of course, because she was so crazy and fascinating. But it's also the region itself that feels haunted. There's a graveyard within a penny's throw everywhere, and there's an old rifle factory. Halloween is a holiday that is celebrated with a lot more gusto than even Christmas or anything else there.

LEE: There is a subgenre of documentaries that probe into dark parts of family relationships, such as Capturing the FriedmansTarnation, and Dear Zachary. It's worth noting that all three of these films, while being praised by many, have also been criticized as trading in exploitation. Did you look to these or other films for lessons on what to do or not do with your project?

PALMIERI: While we have great respect for Tarnation and those films, we were coming at it from a very different aesthetic. The references for me as a cinematographer are too varied to be captured. I don't reference other documentaries in the other work that I do. To be honest I don't know what I am calling upon other than the metaphorical contexts that I'm placing myself in while I'm filming. So if I go in to film Don and Dottie while they're sitting watching television and they're talking, that's one thing. But if I go in armed with ghost haunting cycles, I can frame that personally in a way that evokes more out of the situation. And I don't really have a reference for what we were doing there. It's not that I'm saying what we did is original, it's just that there's no reference for it other than where we were. The place is haunted. You feel the emotion of that place and you try to get it across with all the tools you have as a cinematographer.

LEE: How did your family react to seeing the film?

MOSHER: They had final edit. Anything that you see in the film, we told them that if there was anything they disapproved of, we would cut it. So that was scary, but they really stand behind the film. They're very proud of it and they understand the necessity of getting an alternative image of the lives they have.

PALMIERI: The nature of the film, it's incredibly intimate, and disturbingly so for some people. We wanted this sense of you being right there with the family. What we want people to understand is that this when you engage in a film of this kind, it is a total collaboration. If they didn't want to say something, we couldn't draw it out of them. There were many situations where we could have been filming something but we didn't, because we were being human beings and we are part of a family dynamic.

But past the filming, you go off and you shape this footage, and in the end it has to speak truth to them, and they have to say it's cool to put that stuff out in public.

LEE:  Another objection some have with the film are its moments of heightened stylization, especially when dealing with this working-class reality and genuine socio-economic issues. When you bring in the supernatural elements and inflect that in the style, some people dismiss it as a kind of aesthetic voodoo that cheapens the film's content.

PALMIERI: But we like the aesthetic voodoo! It's the heart of the film. And it's about acknowledging that no matter how dire the circumstances, things can still be beautiful. I think that's an important element to understanding that region.

MOSHER: The question of aesthetics is complicated. But I think you can have a dire or unhealthy attitude towards it. At this point, it's all artifice anyway. If you film something in a straightforward, traditional manner, it's still an aesthetic choice.

PALMIERI: You are adopting a style.

MOSHER: Yeah. And so we wanted to employ as many styles as possible, because it's a very complicated situation there. For me as an artist, I learn facts through poetry, through an aestheticized experience. If it captures me on that level, then I'll go in and tap the dry hard facts of it. But if I don't have that initial emotional response to it, the facts won't stay. And that's the way I respond to the world, that's the way Mike responds to the world, and so that's the only way that we could engage in the subject matter.

PALMIERI: It's a weird conceit that some audiences bring to the subject matter. For example, that the circumstances are dire. So must the filming be dire? Is it required? Why does it have to be just that? That assumes that is all there is to see in a situation, and situations are always more complicated than that.

It depends on how you as a viewer are approaching a piece of work. If you're going there and you're looking for a "document," you're not prepared for the experience of what we're doing, which is what we call creative non-fiction. You're adhering to the facts of the matter, but you're also commenting in as lyrical a fashion as you can, how the voice of the filmmakers come into the project. And sometimes people can do that with just a camera sitting on a pair of sticks, and somebody sitting over there, and the person talking. Hey, sometimes that's all I want, too.

LEE: But even that can be misleading. Take Errol Morris's films, like Fog of War, where you look at Robert McNamara straight in the eye, but there is a sort of myth that he weaves around his portrayal of himself.

PALMIERI: And it's weird when that approach doesn't work too. Errol Morris's style is very strong. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it really doesn't, it's distracting to me. I also suffer from this frustration.

LEE: To answer those who want a "document" from this documentary, can you offer some more background on the region and what led it to be the way it is now? For example, what economic or social factors account for the domestic abuse and other social problems that you see in the film? Has it always been this way?

MOSHER: To my memory, and my family's memory, according to family stories, it's always been that way. In some ways the Valley is better, there's a community college and a diversity that hasn't been there before. But in a metaphoric way of describing it, nothing grows there. The reason we call it October Country is because that region has always been in a perpetual autumn. I think when you grow up, there's an invisible wall, a lack. A lack of opportunities, a lack of diverse experiences, all these things that turn in on people. And that does account for a lot of the domestic violence, the general apathetic character that people there have to wrestle with.

LEE: Placing the film within popular culture, it does offer an alternative to looking at so-called "white trash" America than what you see on TV, with shows like Jersey Shore. But your film still touches on this impulse that has swept over American media in the past decade or so, this desire for "reality" in our entertainment, even though what results is really a debased version. And maybe that speaks to why some critics take issue even with your film, because they consider overt stylization to be antithetical to any true depiction of reality.

PALMIERI: I can address this in one way with respect to how we shot the film. Danielle [Desi's older sister], for example, when we would film with her, sometimes she would adopt a persona that was larger than herself, and there was a point when we would just turn off the camera, because it was completely pointless. It wasn't who she is. It was a persona of who she was. In a certain sense we wanted people to understand that to an extent she is performative, just as we all are performative. You're being performative in the way that you're asking a question, we're being performative in the way that we answer. But there are levels to that. And with Danielle, she would go into this land, I wouldn't say exactly that it's Jersey Shore, but I think that she's influenced by these negative stereotypes that come from reality television. And we are interested in countering those stereotypes with as real as possible, or as lyrically real, images of people that are typically portrayed as hysterical morons on television.

MOSHER: You can't cut off a cultural trend that has that much momentum behind it, but you can try to complicate it. My family is very articulate, and if this project is doing anything in this cultural dialogue, I think the level of articulation that they have, and the level of humor is the little complicated wrench that I'd like to throw at the white trash or working class image of America.

PALMIERI: And by extension, if you're watching this film, you become engaged, and you are on the side of this family and what is going on in their lives, as opposed to reality television, where you're basically expecting a train wreck, and you're waiting for a train wreck. You're not invested in those people. They're basically pawns waiting to be run over by the freight train.

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