Moment of Truth: Reliving the Road to October Country

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Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's new weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week, welcome the makers of October Country , currently playing in New York, opening tomorrow in Los Angeles, and expanding on March 12 to San Francisco, Seattle and Denver.

You've already read a little bit here about October Country, the lyrical, harrowing debut documentary by co-directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. The story of Mosher's family -- three generations attempting to extract themselves from the grip of abuse, teenage pregnancy and other haunted memories in New York's working-class Mohawk Valley -- has attracted acclaim virtually everywhere it's played, and it will compete next month for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. Yet October Country yields another, less-heralded tale as well -- one about a filmmaker and a photographer whose chance encounter in the unlikeliest of spots resulted in one of the unlikeliest (and most fruitful) of collaborations. Movieline recently spoke to Palmieri and Mosher about the working relationship behind their debut, filming your family, and how to make your subjects exploitation-proof.

How did you two meet, and when did you decide to collaborate?

Palmieri: Well, Donal and I met...

Mosher: ...in a drag club in San Francisco.

Palmieri: Yeah. We met at a drag club in San Francisco. We started talking and immediately dorked out, talking about our favorite photographers. We hit on Helen Levitt, and we were talking about her photographs as this insane drag show was going on behind us. From there we became exposed to each others' work kind of naturally. Donal was doing a series of photographs accompanied with text in a gallery context, and that was kind of the source.

Mosher: And I'd seen Mike's music-video and film work, and I really liked it. So we decided to try to bring the two styles together on one project.

What inspired you to pursue a project about your family?

Mosher: Even though I haven't lived in that region for a very long time, I would go back every year at autumn. That's when I miss it the most. At the time I was just photographing everything, and I started photographing family. There was a really good response to that project; that was already in place when I met Michael. We just decided to see if we could take what began as a photo project and translate it into something more.

Michael, what was the process of gaining trust as an outsider -- especially to acquire the level of intimacy and candor we see here?

Palmieri: There's a natural access, obviously, because it's Donal's family. And also, Donal is really the only family member that gets along with everybody. So there's a natural closeness there. But I think something simply happened between me and the family on a personal level. We just enjoyed each others' company and trusted each other. The family just responded to me in a way that made them easy to film. I honestly didn't know what it would be like when you bring the giant camera elephant into the room. But it took about an hour before we realized that it was going to be very easy. The Mosher family really wanted to speak. And that made my job much easier. But it's a very personal project between all of us.

And Donal, you've been a documentary subject once as well. Was that experience something you think might have influenced your family once they were on camera?

Mosher: Well, they really liked The Key of G. For them, basically that was a glimpse of the life I lead away from them. I think the idea that it was made and that it's such a complimentary film played a role in them trusting the project we would do. It certainly made them aware that this wasn't a home movie -- that films get made, and films get put into public. So it did give them more awareness of what it means to be participants in a documentary. Or at least more of an awareness than they might have had had they not seen Key of G.

They're more than just straight documentary subjects, of course. The family and this entire geographic region have a very cinematic texture. How did you want to approach them visually?

Palmieri: We certainly wanted the region to play a role as a character in the film. There's a lot going on there that speaks to the conditions and the problems in the valley. But I also think there's a lot of beauty there as well. It would have been limiting to make a film that examines the regularly dire circumstances of working-class families without looking at things that are naturally beautiful along the way. I think these things can coexist, and I think it helps us to understand the everyday poetry of life there.

Mosher: And visually, the film makes references to the photographs that I had started. But what works in a photograph doesn't always translate or carry the same way when time is flowing around the image. There was a kind of beautiful shift in the small portion of the film that echoes my photography into this moving cinematography. Mike's style took over, and it moved the visual ideas of the project that reflect deeper metaphors -- the ghosts, the hauntings -- into this gorgeous space.

Palmieri: And we did want this film to feel like you do when you read a book. Place plays a really big significance in novels, for example, but rarely does it get to play a role like this in films.

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