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Sundance Backs New Documentary

08/11/2014

A still from HALE COUNTY, a film RaMell Ross MFA 14 PH will continue to develop in the coming year.

In July the Sundance Institute awarded recent graduate RaMell Ross MFA 14 PH a coveted $35,000 Production Grant to turn an evocative 22-minute visual narrative he has been working on for years into a full-length feature film. In the spring the film-in-progress earned the 2014 Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant, with a segment screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC.

Ross has been shaping the project with encouragement and guidance from Professor of Photography Ann Fessler, an award-winning documentary filmmaker herself who notes that “RaMell is one of the most talented graduate students I’ve worked with in my 21 years at RISD.” In both his still photography and film work, he has been documenting the residents of a rural community in Alabama famous for its rolling hillsides and antebellum architecture.

To present an unfiltered picture of the remote area, Ross has been filming the story of two young black men as they deal with the arrival of a newborn baby, contemplate pursuing a college degree and wrestle with other coming-of-age issues. Hale County, his film-in-progress, will continue to chronicle the men’s personal journey as they struggle to defy demographic expectations. Throughout the coming year, Ross will spend every other month on location in Alabama shooting new scenes using a portable Canon Mark III. He hopes to purchase an EOS C500 to record the youths’ candid interactions with their family, clergy and even local barbers.

“The film shifts in and out of long immersive moments and ambling montages accented with dialogue,” Ross explains. “Each scene subtly builds on a narrative – yet as a whole, the piece seems fractured and seemingly nonlinear. With this film, I am able to pose an alternative perspective – one that is poetic, meditative, sensory and accessible.”

To lend auditory punch to the most poignant scenes, Ross has commissioned the former Icelandic pop band Parachutes to compose an ambient soundtrack. The group – which has previously collaborated with international sensations Sigur Ros and Riceboy Sleeps and includes Alex Somers and fellow Photography MFA alumnus Scott Alario MFA 13 PH – is now recording preliminary tracks in a studio in downtown Reykjavik. “The compositions are sparse and atmospheric,” Ross says – “a perfect backdrop to these textured visuals that amplify injustice, ambition and the impact of social stratification.”

Ross explains that he went after the Sundance opportunity based on encouragement from industry insiders when he screened a nine-minute portion of his film at the spring Full Frame festival. “The money is definitely needed,” he says. “This grant is undoubtedly going to help me increase the production value of this film.”

In addition to much-needed financial support, the backing from Sundance opens doors usually sealed tight to those just entering the movie-making industry. “As a director, winning this award is the highest form of validation,” Ross says. “It’s refreshing to be acknowledged for doing what feels natural instead of following an artistic check-list. I ultimately hope this exposure enables me to share my story of the African American experience with a wider audience.”

Abigail Crocker

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tags: alumni, graduate, Graduate Studies, Photography, diversity

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The men in this 1903 portrait class were serious about the business at hand.