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: