Picture 1: Herkimer Cemetery, photographed by Donal Mosher
Picture 2: Donal Mosher, Jed Ryan, & Michael Palmieri
THE MEN BEHIND "OCTOBER COUNTRY"
The new film "October Country" has been getting a lot of buzz lately. The hauntingly beautiful documentary, which showcases a year in the life of a working class family in upstate New York's Mohawk Valley, was based on Donal Mosher's photography of and writings about his family. As you can guess, the creators of the movie-- Mosher and prolific filmmaker Michael Palmieri-- have been busier than ever. After gaining critical success on the film festival circuit ("October Country" was Winner of six awards so far, and was nominated for many others.), the movie is now set for a nationwide theatrical release. "October Country" premieres in New York City's IFC Center this weekend, and hits the big screens in Portland (the city Mosher and Palmieri currently call home), L.A., and other stateside spots throughout March. There's even a showing in Prague on the schedule! Mosher and Palmieri are not just creative collaborators; they are life partners as well. The two spoke with Jed Ryan about the movie you'll be hearing much, much more about in the near future:
JR: Congratulations on the critical success of "October Country". Now, in many of the documentaries I have seen, the creators try to steer the viewer to a particular direction or viewpoint. In some, the filmmakers actually appear in the movie at some point. We never see the two of you or hear your voices in "October Country", and there's no narration. The characters pretty much speak for themselves. Is that intentional?
MP: It was totally intentional.
DM: Yeah! It became apparent that they could really speak for themselves, and should speak for themselves.
MP: It's really interesting that you preface that question that way, because it did not used to be that way in documentaries. Today, there's this growing trend towards the use of the narrator-- the insertion of the individual into the personal story and that sort of thing. But actually, that's not typical. There's a history of people making personally narrated films and stuff like that, but that often wasn't the norm.
JR: In "October Country", you're really letting the Mosher family tell their own story.
MP: Also, it's letting the audience work towards understanding what it is we want them to understand, and to interpret it the way they want to.
DM: We also frame it in the context of Halloween, and with a lot of metaphor. There's a certain interpretation already happening. We feel that that's where our presence is really marked. We're not pretending that it's a dry, straightforward film in any way. It's really got an atmospheric bias.
JR: Yes, it does. A lot of documentaries are ostensibly about educating and enlightening the viewer. Was there a message you wanted to get across with "October Country"?
MP: What we are trying the most to do is to get people to try and understand what it feels like to be in that region, and to be in those situations: putting the audience at the kitchen table, as opposed to distancing ourselves with something like "I'm another person going back home, and this is my story, and now I'm going to go fix things...", or "Here are three things you can do to combat this..." We were more interested in exploring storytelling of this fashion as a way of bearing witness and giving people a chance to sympathize, as a first step towards understanding the real problem...
DM: ...or, making the choice to understand or not. I've always felt haunted by my family, and so I wanted to make a film where the characters haunted you. Then, because they stayed with you-- or the circumstances or the value or whatever it was stayed with you-- you chose to think about it and gauge it on your own. It's much more in the way that a novel works or that a narrative film works, rather than a typical documentary.
JR: How has the family reacted? Have their lives changed at all with all the attention the movie has received? Are they even aware of what's going on?
DM: Oh, yeah. They're aware. I think it's had small, positive effects. In a couple of instances, it's had some really seriously positive effects. Hopefully, that will continue!
JR: The two characters whose future we wonder about in the movie are two of the youngest ones: 12-year old Desi, and Chris, the young man. We really wonder what happens to them after the movie.
DM: Well, Chris-- because of watching the pain he inflicted upon Dottie-- went back and got his GED as a sort of present to her. That's the one definitely positive thing we can say happened because of our film-making. And Desi... she's brilliant! But, her experience is really small. Although there are a lot of ambiguities about her future, I think that through the film-making she is beginning to see that there's a world outside the Mohawk Valley. There's a world outside her anger at being trapped. She feels really trapped, and now she can see outside the box that she sometimes feels herself in. I'm hoping that will have a really good effect on her.
JR: I'm going to ask the two of you separately now: Mike, what was it about Donal that made that brought this movie to life? Could this movie have been made without his contribution?
MP: I don't think the film would have been made at all, because it's his family-- and he's been spending a lot of time as a photographer and writing about his family. The ideas were in that writing, and his photographs are the inspiration and the source point-- the beginning point. In a certain sense, had I not seen his photographs or his writing, it would not have happened.
JR: And, Donal? Same question about Mike!
DM: It's mutual too, because I'm not a cinematographer. I don't know how to do that, and then there's all the qualities of Mike's work and his actual person. He could come into a room with his camera, and make people feel comfortable and trust him-- especially given the intensity of the material that is happening with my family. That's something very, very special. I don't know how to qualify that gift that he has. Certainly there's no way that the film could have achieved any of the intimacy that it did without that quality.
JR: Was it difficult working together creatively, as partners?
(Mike and Donal both laugh.)
MP: We broke a lot of dishes! It's the vanity process. But, it's always that you're fighting the material... never fighting one another, really. We would always have differences of opinion now and again. We make compromises as artists together to get to an end point... and in the end, we always look back at it and say, "That compromise was really was the best decision." Because, we do come from different backgrounds and different aesthetic places as well.
JR: When you show the movie to an audience that's, say-- more urban or cosmopolitan, what kind of reaction do you get? Is it a culture shock for them?
DM: On the whole, no. No matter where they're coming from, people still tend to generally just relate to the family dynamic-- even though the incident might be more extreme. For the most part, that's the reaction!
"October Country" is playing at New York City's IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at W. Third St., NYC. from Friday, Feb 12 - Thursday, Feb 18. Directors Mosher and Palmieri will be in attendance at 6:50pm screenings on Fri, Sat, and Sun Feb 12-14. Call (212) 924-7771 or visit www.IFCCenter.com for more info. Visit www.OctoberCountryFilm.com for more info and national screenings.