October Country

October Country
Editor’s Note: Doc Soup is a monthly doc­u­ment­ary screen­ing pro­gramme run by the good folks at Hot Docs. It gives audi­ences in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver their reg­u­lar doc fix each year from the fall through to the spring, lead­ing up to the Hot Docs fest­ival itself.

October Country (Directors: Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri): Photographer Donal Mosher has been cre­at­ing photo-essays of his fam­ily for many years. When cine­ma­to­grapher Palmieri saw them, he sug­ges­ted they make a film. From that simple idea came this lovely, haunt­ing por­trait of a troubled American fam­ily. Mosher’s fam­ily live in Ilion, a small town in upstate New York, and the film cov­ers a period of one year, begin­ning and end­ing with Hallowe’en. The title and Hallowe’en theme fit per­fectly, since this is a fam­ily that seems haunted by the ghosts of the past.

Patriarch Don is an emo­tion­ally remote Vietnam vet, strug­gling with what he wit­nessed (and per­haps par­ti­cip­ated in). He’s com­pletely estranged from his sis­ter Denise, a lonely Wiccan who has always found solace in other worlds. Don’s wife Dottie seems to be the centre and the rock of the clan, lov­ing every­one even when her hard-bit­ten wis­dom is ignored, which is pretty much all the time. Her daugh­ter Donna, who has become a grand­mother in her thirties, sees her own daugh­ter Danael mak­ing exactly the same mis­takes that she once made. Then there’s Desiree, just enter­ing her tur­bu­lent teens and won­der­ing if she can escape the cycles of des­pair that the rest of the fam­ily seem doomed to repeat. Making occa­sional appear­ances (when he’s not in jail or party­ing with his friends) is Chris, Don and Dottie’s foster son, who has returned their patient love by rob­bing them on more than one occa­sion.

In this remark­ably intim­ate film, each fam­ily mem­ber speaks openly about their troubles, and their efforts to break out of their destruct­ive pat­terns, but some­thing always stops them. It doesn’t help that their town is eco­nom­ic­ally depressed, with the only steady jobs avail­able at the local gun plant. Wal-mart is not only their only place to shop; its park­ing lot has become some­thing of a town square, where every­one gath­ers to watch fire­works. Danael escapes one viol­ent rela­tion­ship with her baby’s father only to fall into another one. Her choice of men is as lim­ited as her choice of career. The older mem­bers of the fam­ily smoke rue­fully and shake their heads.

And yet. For all the gloom in the film, we can’t help caring deeply for each mem­ber of this admit­tedly dam­aged fam­ily. They are artic­u­late, hon­est, and often funny, and we root for them, even when we know that noth­ing much can really change. Palmieri’s cam­era catches numer­ous moments of beauty in the Moshers’ lives, and Dottie admits that even with all the town’s liab­il­it­ies, it’s still her favour­ite place to be.

Mosher and Palmieri have allowed us into the lives of people who make up a much lar­ger pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion than movies and tele­vi­sion would ever lead us to believe. Their lives are hard, but not without mean­ing. The one curi­ous omis­sion in the film is Donal Mosher him­self. It would have been much more inter­est­ing to see his inter­ac­tions with his fam­ily, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing that he’s one who did “get out” and make his way in the lar­ger world. You’ll hear some of his reas­on­ing for not appear­ing in the film in the audio Q&A, but for some­thing that star­ted out so per­sonal, he seemed determ­ined not to impose his own feel­ings onto the film.

October Country is brave and unflinch­ing. It’s inter­est­ing to note that the film­makers gave the fam­ily mem­bers final cut of the film. Their hon­esty and elo­quence in the midst of their troubles dis­play some of the best qual­it­ies that human beings can embody, and the film is a beau­ti­ful por­trait of these imper­fect lives.

Here is the Q&A with dir­ect­ors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri from after the screen­ing:

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Duration: 14:31

Official site of the film


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