Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I’ve had a chronic suspicion that the United States, in particular, is best understood through the lens. Behind, reflected in, and in front of moving and still cameras, America is naked and lucid in proportion to the good-faith education and criticality of the viewer. The films of Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross seem built with this in mind. Openly in conversation with one another, each work captures a dissimilar event of access, normalcy, and wonder riddled with lacunas for interpretation that rear a best-when-self-generated sense of truth.
To glean the Ross brothers’ values as makers all one needs to do is watch their debut film, 45365 (2009), titled after the zip code of their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, where the documentary is set. Like a recording of someone singing a cappella, the film seems like it could have been made in any decade when the technology needed to create it existed. There is a DIY quality to their documentation that is apparent in every frame, so much so that it disarms.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020), their most recent film, cultivates an equal humbleness of form. However, their relationship to the stage on which they document has shifted. While 45365 rendered them reflexive subjects of their hometown, in Bloody Nose, they are the levers that constructed the landscape, and in doing so, pre-imagined its dynamics. With the documentation playing out entirely inside a dive bar, it captures their smallest site to date. Yet, the brothers’ shared vision endeavors to find the inner life of a wide range of protagonists.
The uncommon honesty in the Ross brothers’ films is not a naturally occurring, unstudied trait. Their methodology has been chosen, honed, and wielded to illuminate the invisible and irreducible aspects of the documentable world. It is increasingly clear that their central preoccupation with these lens-based accounts of folks living their American lives—dreaming, floating, and performing themselves to varying degrees—continues to transform alongside their evolving and ever-merging sensibilities.
RaMell Ross I want to start with clarification that I’m not related to you two, because I think there is going to be some confusion.
Turner Ross Does Dad know? (laughter)
RR He hasn’t called me back in years, so I don’t know, sorry.
Bill Ross Where are you?
RR Rhode Island. What about you two?
BR We’re in New Orleans.
TRWe took a road trip to go think up some new ideas, but it’s been a simple year in contrast to what we had anticipated.
RR I imagine. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets premiered in January, and you obviously had expectations of screening it at some festivals.
TR We were lucky in that we were able to premiere it at Sundance and Berlin before everything shut down, and we have played with a lot of festivals in the virtual setting. It’s a fucked-up year, but we feel fortunate within that, really.
We’ve certainly gotten into your work. I’ve been picking around your writings and photography, and I’m really taken by your visual language, your written language, and how perceptive you are.
RR Thank you.
BR Even when we first emailed back and forth in 2014 or 2015, and you were sending little clips of your work, I remember thinking, I don’t know where this is going, but I like the steps I’m seeing. You’re seeing the adjectives, not just the nouns.
RR I noticed the same when Lois [Vossen] at ITVS shared your work with me. I recognized the two of you as people who see, think, and work in a similar way to me. I think it’s your observational urge, as evidenced by your camera work, that I connected with. It reminds me of that famous line by Garry Winogrand where he says, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” Except I don’t think you two document something just to see what it looks like documented. There’s something deeper. I wondered where that sensibility comes from.
TR It’s two different things. There’s the intention, the impulse, and then there’s the act of actually being a cameraperson and making editorial choices. Before those decisions happen we usually ask ourselves what images are in our minds that we want to articulate or find ourselves within. Because of the way that we’ve chosen to work, going out in the world to find those things, it’s very much an act of being present and curious. It’s about looking for something but also being available to surprises, really trying to be in those spaces and learn from them, not just impose on them.
RR Do you two find yourselves becoming solely cameras in the moment or, as you’re implying, working more as participant-observers who are having conversations with the folks in your work?
BR We’re always a part of the community in which we’re shooting, even if it’s a constructed one.
TR That’s directly articulated in Bloody Nose. That film wasn’t just a two-camera scenario in which the world was happening. It was a scenario that we had created, and we knew going in that it was going to happen, for the most part, in real time. So I was actively looking for what we knew we had to have in order to fulfill the intention, to show the time of day, character, little nuances of space, and all of the things we had talked about in advance. And Bill’s role was basically to be a color commentator, to be aware of the game and what was happening, but also to be available to moments of serendipity, and there were confluences between those. We were fortunate to have a binary camera system so that we could observe something separately or together, and there’s beauty when the two coalesce.
RR There definitely seems to be feedback happening between you two unconsciously throughout all of your work. In 45365, there’s a shot of someone at a fair interviewing a woman with a microphone, and then it cuts to the radio in a police car, and the officer is listening to it. I mean, you could have been filming those two things simultaneously if it were live, and in that cut, one gets the sense of both progress and simultaneity. The range of connections that you two make between the visuals in your edits seems to be on some sibling shit. (laughter)
BR Even if we’re not in the same room, I always know where Turner is, and I can probably imagine how he’s covering it and what I need to be picking up wherever I am.
TR Because we built this career together, not just as kids in the backyard but now as a professional entity, there is a shared goal and intention. And there’s so much thought before we go into what we’re doing. That way we’re overly prepared, and then available for whatever this thing is.
RR You two have an extreme mental practice. Three of your films take place over the course of twenty-four hours. You’re very much like athletes, and your films are like your sporting events. You work for two or three years for this Olympic moment, and then you film the shit out of it. Can you speak to that process?
BR That goes to a larger question about time and cinematic time. I don’t know how intentional it was for three of our films to take place over the course of twenty-four hours. It was just that the story was calling for it.
TR We also like that process. We played sports as kids. I know you’re also a basketball player, RaMell. There’s something about preparing yourself for the game. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to have a game plan, a strategy, and you hone all those skills, but once you get on the floor it’s a totally different thing. There is something really beautiful about that.
BR Contemporary Color (2016) and Bloody Nose were two that were very athletic. We had to prepare to be shooting for eighteen hours with no redo. But we like the pressure; we get off on it.
TR I learned a lot of skills by working as a lackey on bigger films as a young dude, but I just really disliked how slow and encapsulating those productions were.
BR Maybe it’s a reaction to traditional, fictional filmmaking.
TR And maybe it’s also sort of a small-minded naiveté. It’s like, wait a minute, these action movies aren’t happening in real-time like they do on film? (laughter) But mostly it’s about the kineticism of things that are in play and trying to respond to those things. It’s more exciting, and the pressure is there. Sometimes you have to rely on your brother with a no-look pass and hope that you’re in the right place.
RR I also love the athleticism just in terms of time and endurance, and also how you kind of force yourselves into a situation. There’s something quite beautiful about the way your process parallels the temporal direction of life, an abstract touchstone that generally separates notions of documentary from non-documentary, which is the way you deal with death and irreversibility.
Your films feel super homemade and raw. Could you speak to this idea of crafting something from life and presenting it simply?
BR We want the films to feel handmade, because the people onscreen feel closer that way. There’s not this veneer that’s put up.
TR In any art form, I always appreciate when there’s some evidence of the artist, something tactile and human and a little bit rugged so that you can see evidence of the experience of its evolution. There’s probably something deeply Catholic and Midwestern about that as well, just saying that we are flawed people and we don’t want to put on any airs. But also, the aesthetic we often revert to is a little bit messy. If you watch a really slick film, you can be overwhelmed and mystified by the process, and that can be beautiful, but there is something about seeing the hand of the maker that draws you in.
If it’s all right, RaMell, while I’ve got you on the horn, I’m curious about your documentary work as well. Are you thinking about these things in advance, or is it just a slow simmering?
RR My process at times is similar to yours in the sense that there’s an enormous amount of thought that goes into what happens without conscious awareness. And while I believe one should be open to, even desirous of, what comes out of the blue, you can also more actively predispose yourself to a certain observation. It’s like self-indoctrination, a repetitious wondering and projection. I’m a very big and dangerously problematic daydreamer, like, I just blinked and now a month has passed.
TR My daughter asked my wife the other day, “Mom, do you know why Dad scares so easily?” My wife told her, “It’s because he’s so dreamy! Just off in his own world.”
RR Well, your wife definitely loves you, because I imagine my partner being like, “Because something’s wrong with him.” (laughter)
But to return to the messy framework and the homemade/handmade quality of your films, they’re almost under-aestheticizing, and that is the fundamental power of early concepts of documentary photography. It’s so seemingly what is in front of the camera that you have no choice but to deal with it as something that happened. Obviously, aestheticizing happens by process of rendering something: you reproduce it, you aestheticize it. But in your work I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Steadicam shot.
When I describe the looking process for my documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), I call it “observational logic,” where you’re using the camera as an extension of your consciousness and, of course, your eye. When your eye turns, you’re looking for something, and then you connect with it. I see that process of carrying consciousness in your work, too. Is that something you connect with?
BR One hundred percent.
TR That’s well put. When I watch your work, I certainly see you seeing.
We often ask ourselves: What is the most important thing? What is the most descriptive moment, and how do you get to it? We’ve chosen a pattern of trying to be within the thing and not be too tech-laden. We don’t want to interrupt a moment just because it’s not precise.
BRA lot of times we’ll say, “Shoot with the heart, not with the head.”
TR It isn’t necessarily about the austerity of the shot or the moment, but just that you get to it and find whatever that inner light is. And sometimes that’s looking at the carpet, you know? Sometimes that’s following the dog. It’s saying, “If I were the id of the energy of this environment, where would I go? And can I plug myself in enough to be there?” It’s a theater in the round. It’s the world that continues. These moments don’t happen again.
BRThey don’t end once we leave.
TR So we’re trying to evolve with that through the films and get to a new place now where we say, What if we can create environments? Can we still find the resonant humanity within those constructs and allow it to feel lived in and breathed in?
RR I think that’s a beautiful problem. It asks the world at large to embrace the idea that documentation that’s valuable for the exploration of the human being, the psychological realm, the relationship between all of these deep factors of what it means to be a person that we’re not even aware of, can happen in situations that are performed and sometimes scripted. Where is the programming of culture within a local geography named in these types of pursuits? What roles do folks assume with their own codes and sites of signifying given the modes of expression available during a particular time period? Where does the deeper programming of civilization articulate itself in our labeling of genre, in the real-or-fake dichotomy? It’s complicated because we’re currently in a historical moment within mainstream sensibilities that applies journalistic ethics to the demise of the potential revealing of some vaster experiences.
TR I would say that your work is also much more a poetry of experience rather than some sort of didactic journalism.
BR Absolutely. The shot that stayed with me the most last year was from your Easter Snap (2019) short. It was the last shot, where the car pulls up and you see the guys in the side-view mirror, and then it cuts. That is the unscripted, surprise moment that gets you somewhere. It’s that moment where you’re like, Oh, that’s actually saying everything that I wanted to say.
RR I mean, your films are filled with that stuff.
The one question that I had pre-scripted for you two is, “What, to you, is a document?” Academics write about it, and it’s fraught, and it’s undecided, but I think you two have a trajectory of work that is shifting. You’re starting to work with the document in more complex ways.
BRThe older we get, the more we experience, the more we ingest artistically, the more complicated it gets. We’re getting to a point where we’re finding a truer document not in raw documentation but in a more deeply considered experience.
TR Because in the artistic sense, a document is authentic if it has captured an experience through time, whether that’s in a Rauschenberg painting, a Wiseman documentary, or a big X-Men movie. I don’t think of a document as a replica. For us, it comes down to some inherent authenticity. I mean, we could have a conversation about what truth is. Is it genuine?
BR Does it ring true?
TR And our extrapolation is that we create documents of experience. Sometimes those are found, and sometimes they’re harvested or provoked. There are many ways to arrive at a human experience that offers an opportunity for empathy. So we’ve tried to create windows into worlds that people may not otherwise see. It’s also a document of a place and a time and what it feels like to be there. For us, the true document is imbued with some level of genuineness, of experiential authenticity.
RR I mean, Bloody Nose is completely saturated in authenticity. It’s almost like you two just said, “Okay, I don’t know what this film’s going to be, but I bet if we did it in a bar with people drinking, it would be authentic.” (laughter)
BR We thought it might work.
TR We weren’t going to have a bunch of actors play the roles.
RR There’s such a sense of community. I see community as an overarching thread in your work, maybe loss as well. I was especially struck by Contemporary Color in terms of loss, because there’s nothing like knowing that you’re not going to be able to do something again without being meta-conscious that it’s the last time. That’s also in Bloody Nose, because the bar is hypothetically closing after that night, and so you’re trying to have your last experience, but you don’t want to be lamenting the loss. The loss is happening while you’re trying not to lose it.
I also love the way that you began with the interior aspects in Contemporary Color and then shifted to the exterior performance.
It captures the whole micro-macro scope of what human experience in relation to society is. You perform, you do these things in order to postpone death, to forget that it’s inevitable, but the whole time you’re like, This is it.
TR It’s bizarre to consider them together, but Contemporary Color and Bloody Nose really are sister pieces. They’re about a temporary and intentional community brought together from all different walks of life for a finite amount of time because of a common idea ending with an uncertain future. They all come together inside of four walls to live out a fantasy, to be people that they aren’t in the outer world, and to go through something together that dissipates when they walk outside the door. We learned a lot from Contemporary Color and then reduced it back down to our handmade film.
RR Wow, is that how you got there?
BR Yeah, it’s a direct response, because we think of our first three films as a group.
TR Those first three are about community, time, place, and some sort of esoteric theme.
BR But I think it goes deeper in that all the films are really about endings: the first one, 45365, the end of our relationship to our youth; the second, Tchoupitoulas (2012), the loss of innocence; the third, Western (2015), the loss of a certain way of life, a normalcy. I think the reason we’ve always shot and documented stuff is that we’ve always felt time slipping away. The moment is holy. We know that we’re never going to get this again, and there’s a melancholy to that.
TR There’s a mad beauty to it as well.
BR I remember feeling that as a little kid shooting stuff on Hi8 tape, just going around town being like, I know this old crazy guy on the corner. He’s not going to be there in a couple years, so I need to get footage of him before he’s gone.
TR Yeah, or being sad to go to bed because you’re going to have to say good night to your friends.
BR I feel like there’s a melancholic thread throughout all the films that is deeply ingrained. I haven’t quite worked through that.
TR We’ve been on a religious bent today, watching Fellini films and talking about Catholicism. The reliquaries were so bizarre. They would preserve the finger bone of Saint So-and-so, and preserve other things in amber over time. This conversation makes me think back to the magic of those objects, how you can touch them. They are relics or documents of an experience, and they’re imbued with the energy of that time. They’re like little portals to another dimension.
RR There’s almost nothing more important than what’s documented.
BR It’s the original art. We’re just doing cave painting, essentially.
RR So then what is your relationship to the fundamental myth-building, or myth-reification that happens when you make a film, and also the instantiation of archetypes or the creation of new ones? To me, Kamari from Bloody Nose was a new archetype. He came across as such an astute thinker. I had seen older versions of him, but I hadn’t seen him yet. So in some sense, your film, however constructed in its original thesis, is also capable of producing documentation of the real in the moment, and expanding what it means to be a person of color. I wonder how you all think about that.
TR We certainly are not the authors of that man’s experience, but we can be conscious of its inclusion. We saw our friend Kamari as an incredible generational counterpoint to the character of Bruce. They are both Black men living in America and spending time at this bar, but with very different perspectives. In casting the film, we wanted to build a world with a spectrum of experiences. We initially set out with an eye for archetypes, but once you find someone like Bruce, that generic placeholder is replaced by a dynamic human being. That then informs our approach to further casting. Our hope in putting that room of people together was that there would be some form of alchemy, as well as friction. It was really fascinating, in going through the experience and then reviewing it, to see what a generational conversation people were having, and the ways in which people brought their cultural backdrop to the experience of being there together.
RR Kamari seemed to have some sort of wisdom and awareness that I didn’t necessarily notice in anyone else. To that extent I was really appreciative, since most people of color in film generally don’t have comparable dynamism to their counterparts or filmic compadres. I imagined a lot of those folks being trapped in the bar, but he seemed like he was just passing through.
TR Yeah, we wanted to home in on that: Who are the people who have an allegiance to the place? Who are the people who will come and inevitably replace those people? And who are the people just passing through?
When we were bringing this whole world of people together, we said to each of them beforehand, “You are here for a reason, and there will be no duplicity. You are the only you in this space, so inhabit that as you will.” What we didn’t want was to put people in there and then tell them what their experience was. They respond to each other like they would in a traditional documentary.
RR So you’re putting people in these positions where they’re fully in charge of being themselves, and there’s no expectation otherwise. To me, that brings up what’s so interesting about Bloody Nose, which is the relationship between its construction and the way that society has constructed its own realities, how people perform as themselves in a world full of social constructs. There are so many fictions that we must abide by every day because they become rules of interaction or behavior, unwritten and explicit. It’s almost a necessity for cinema to get to the point where the dichotomy of fiction and nonfiction is irrelevant, and to become more focused on transparency, where it’s more about performance, platforms, and messaging than pre-deciding how something’s going to be approached or absorbed.
TR We live in a messy world. We’re making films that don’t abide by the rules of one side or the other, and I think as a society we are certainly fighting against that. In Contemporary Color, you have those kids of all stripes celebrating and being celebrated on the floor. The legalization of gay marriage is on the news in the locker rooms, and people are marching in the streets, and David Byrne’s up on the front of the stage, and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, America’s changed.”
BR Ha! That seems like a million years ago.
TR And where are we now? We keep wrestling with this idea of inclusivity and what are the norms and what are the rules. Who are we really? What stories are whose to tell? Do we fit the archetypes and paradigms that we’re supposed to? And what does it really look like in some of these overlooked spaces?
RR It’s easy to just fall into talking about Bloody Nose the whole time, but I also think Tchoupitoulas is fantastic. A lot of my problems with filmmaking come from how films portray young Black men. And so I loved the relationship between this film’s dreaminess and the inevitable cultural shaping that will happen outside of the dreaminess in the protagonists’ heads. It’s such a beautiful truth that happens in one night. Do you two have any thoughts on that in hindsight?
TR That film was really important to us because it required delving into our dreams and experiences as kids. Of course, this wasn’t our experience, and we can’t speak for the experience of those boys, but it is a scenario in which we can do something common, which is seeing an adult world through the eyes of a child. We placed ourselves in that New Orleans dreamscape, but the boys are of that world. They had to be our guides, and we tried to make it a story of their own telling. Even if it was a Pinocchio-esque scenario that we put them in, it’s William’s unfettered hopes and dreams that are the heart and soul of the film. We couldn’t have written that if we’d tried.
BR Having come from an anti-intellectual, anti-art, anti-everything kind of place, it took us a while to catch up to certain conversations. When William walked by, we just said, “Hey, this kid is cool and should have a movie made about him.” It was that simple. We looked at it like Little Fugitive (1953) in New Orleans. If we were to make that film now, the conversations would be much different.
TR We, like everybody else, grow from a diversity of experience. We learn because we immerse ourselves in these projects. Investing in a community for so long, you can’t help but to receive a lot, to grow as a person and take that with you to the next thing.
RR So what happens for you two as you continue to make? Do you hope to dismantle or confront these problems?
BR The further we go the warier we are of what we do, who we are, and how we confront the world. So we’re always questioning every step of this.
TR We’re making documents of not only our experience but also the times in which we live. There’s no issue that we’re pushing forward, but we are trying to be reflective, not only of the world that we’re in, the zeitgeist of our times, but also of our perception of it and our place in it.
RaMell Ross is a visual artist, filmmaker, and writer based in Rhode Island and Alabama. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Aperture, Harper’s, TIME, Oxford American, and at the Walker Arts Center. He has been awarded fellowships from the Aaron Siskind Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation. His feature documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards.
Originally published in
Our winter issue includes interviews with Tashi Dorji, Danielle Evans, Walton Ford, Guadalupe Maravilla, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the Ross Brothers, and Aaron Turner; DIY cookbooklets from Dindga McCannon; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, and Allison Parrish; prose by Langston Cotman, GennaRose Nethercott, and Brontez Purnell; a comic by Michael DeForge; protest drawings by Steve Mumford; and more.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.