October Country is a unique documentary that uses the themes of Halloween and, in particular, ghosts to give voice to a working-class family in Mohawk Valley, NY. The Mosher family had long been a subject of Donal Mosher's evocative photography and writing when he met director Michael Palmieri; together, they co-wrote and directed this documentary that offers the viewer a very personal glimpse of the struggles the Moshers face every day. The evocative and often startlingly beautiful result is a portrait of a family haunted by the Vietnam War, cycles of abuse, and financial woes.
TribecaFilm: Donal, were you at all wary of documenting your family on film?
Donal Mosher: No, not really. Once they agreed to being in front of the camera -- I mean, they already had a certain awareness that images of them were going out into the public anyway. But no, I was never wary because at the end, once we really got engaged and the stories were very personal, we really began a dialogue with them about, you know, that this is going into public, and gave them the final decision ... Anything we ended up putting in the film, they got to say yes or no to. Every member of the family got to agree and have the final say on [it], so I think there was a degree of trust going through the whole project.
TribecaFilm: So the boundaries were established as you went along?
Michael Palmieri:Yeah, although it, to us, seemed somewhat boundary-less in a way ... I mean, it's always a dialogue when you're working with people who are allowing you to film them. There [are] obvious times when it's just not the right time to film, and then there's also times when you could be filming that you, as a human being, don't want to film. So there's a lot of these things that are in play.
TribecaFilm: The cinematography and direction are, literally, haunting. There's the symbolism, of course, of ghosts and Halloween, and I think the cinematography and the direction have so much to do with that. Can you talk about how you got that feeling of a portrait, an evocative photo?
MP: Well, the genesis point of where the film begins is obviously in Donal's photographs of his family, so as a cinematographer, first I'm looking at the character of those photographs, but more the mood and the feeling I'm getting from the photographs. And when we talked about the project, and I learned more about his family through his writing and through his photos, it was really clear that there were certain things that we were going to be looking at when going to film his family. So it's one thing to go and talk to Donal's family; it's an entirely other thing to go armed with the idea of, "How am I going to situate this in the context of ghosts or hauntings or cycles?" Then you end up having, as a cinematographer, so much more visually, because you're thinking about that all the time as well. You're always thinking [in] the metaphorical, visual way. And the region itself, it's beautiful and it feels haunted. It feels essentially on the edge of collapse in a lot of ways. But that doesn't make it ugly; it makes it quite beautiful as well, in a lot of context[s]. So I think it's just this sort of back and forth with negotiating all those things and trying to capture it on film, and it just kind of happens naturally.
TribecaFilm: What's it like reading reactions to the movie, which seem, at the very least, classist? I read on IMDb someone comparing your family to a real-life Addams family.
MP: I haven't heard that one.
DM: No, but I kind of like that one. [laughs] It's tricky, it's really tricky ... Mostly they're really positive and they really seem to respond ... to our interpretation of the family, but occasionally there are attacks or it's read as exploitation ... people come at it with their cultural lens and you can't fight it unless you can engage in a dialogue. And whenever we have felt under attack or it's been painful, usually the thing I go for is looking at the language. We never use the term "white trash," but people do use it when they're attacking us of exploiting [the family]. And if you can point that out to people, if you can respond to them on a level like, "Well, you know what, there's some classist stuff in your language," we both begin to understand [each other].
MP: The first review we ever got was in Variety, and they just bashed us. They said it was exploitative and all this sort of stuff, and it was really like, "Whoah!" I mean, we really were broadsided about it and by it, and there was one thing where they were talking about the dilapidated dwelling of the Mosher family, and I just thought, "God, that's just such classist bulls***, because, dilapidated according to whom?" You know? That house is beautiful.
DM: Yeah. In the end, it's just this interpretation, and you hope you get to have a voice in response, and then it becomes dialogue and then it's productive, and that's just the best that you can hope for in these circumstances.
October Country will open at IFC Center in New York on Friday, February 12. Meet special guests at the 6:50 screenings all weekend.