“October Country” is a deeply affecting and gorgeously photographed documentary which chronicles a working class family during the course of one year. The movie starts on Halloween season and concludes at the same time the next year. It’s not hard to understand why this magical holiday was chosen a kickoff point for the film. For many, Halloween is the chance for all of us– from age six to sixty– to reconnect with our inner childhood, with such simple pleasures as candy and dressing in costumes. Indeed, feeling like a kid again would be a great thing for many members of the family profiled in “October Country”; it likely helps them escape from the difficulties of adulthood that they face now. Those difficulties include the lifelong effects of reduced economic opportunity, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, and more.
Meet the Moshers. They live in Mohawk County in upstate New York, a region which was affected by poverty even before the nation’s current economic downturn. Their matriarch is a magnetic woman named Dottie. Although she wears her years on her face, Dottie is still a lively trooper whose dedication as a mother runs parallel to an admirable (and sometimes puzzling) detachment from her needy family. This may be because, as her husband Don (a war veteran and retired policeman) points out, this mom still believes that people are essentially good. Throughout the movie, Dottie dishes out common sense on such subjects as the importance of family and the power of positive thinking. She also speaks about “cycles”: when new generations of families repeat the same mistakes made by their predecessors. Dottie knows about this firsthand. Her daughter Donna was involved in an abusive relationship, and became a mother at too young an age. Donna’s daughter Daneal, similarly, was involved in abusive relationships and had a baby in her teens. Viewers wil note that, in fact, the age difference between Donna and Daneal is so narrow that the two could easily pass for sisters rather than as mother and daughter. In the course of the film, Dottie and Don’s charismatic but troubled teenage foster son Chris gets arrested and jailed for stealing from his own foster parents’ house. The audience doesn’t see Chris again until the end of the film, when he appears– rather unsettlingly fetching, I must say– in “abused wife” drag on Halloween night. We also meet Denise, Don’s sister, who speaks to the dead and practices Wicca– although her self-professed reliance on pharmaceuticals can be perceived as somewhat antithetical. (Many Wiccans eschew medications for incantations, magic, and more natural cures.)
A beautifully haunting collaboration of photographer/writer/musician Donal Mosher (a family member) and prolific filmmaker Michael Palmieri, “October Country” is based on Donal’s series of photographs of and writings about his family. The creators of the film never appear in front of the camera. There’s no narration, and no master perspective on the subjects of the film to “explain” what’s going on or to lead the viewer to a particular viewpoint. The characters- from Dottie and Don to Donna’s young daughter Desiree— all speak for themselves, and have no problem doing so. The audience’s first instinct may be to judge the characters for their own dilemma, but it’s awfully hard to do when the Moshers convey such a matter-of-fact, grin-and-bear-it attitude about their circumstances, sometimes with a dark humor running through: At one point, Daneal bemoans with deadpan honesty that she can’t buy presents for her infant daughter Ruby: “It’s gonna be bad this birthday. I can’t buy her anything. Everybody else is gonna have to buy her something and say that I bought it for her!”
“October County” is NOT a heavy-handed expose or exploitation piece about the plight of the working poor. We want to know why the characters can’t break the “cycles” that Dottie speaks of. After all, the answers are at least partially out there, but nobody wants to listen– or, maybe, they just can’t. Why? Throughout “October Country”, there are several references to ghosts– the ghosts of war that haunt the family patriarch Don, the spirits that Denise speaks to, and more. It’s too far-fetched for many of us to accept that supernatural elements are governing these characters’ lives, but it’s right on the mark to believe that the ghosts of the past can seriously impact all of our lives– present and future. We want a happy ending for the Mosher family… and in this case, a happy ending of sorts may come out in small ways. That’s where twelve-year old Desiree comes in. As she opines about everything from the war to the benefits of playing video games, the bright tween comes across as proportionately much smarter and aware of the world than her older relatives. We believe wholeheartedly that this girl may break the cycle set by her predecessors. In a true story about a slice of American life that many of us will never see, Desiree’s own personal optimism is more inspiring than a hundred artificial Hollywood happy endings.
“October Country” is playing at New York City’s IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at W. Third St., NYC. from Friday, Feb 12 – Thursday, Feb 18.
The Mosher family will be in attendance at 6:50pm screening on Friday, Feb 12.
Directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri will be in attendance at 6:50pm screenings on Fri, Sat, Sun Feb 12-14. Call (212) 924-7771 or visit http://www.IFCCenter.com for more info. Visit http://www.OctoberCountryFilm.com for more info and national screenings.