Interview: Raven Jackson and Jomo Fray on All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
This article appeared in the October 5, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read and listen to all of our coverage NYFF61 here.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson, 2023)
I had been aware of Raven Jackson’s debut feature, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, from its early developmental stages through the completion of its screenplay. [Full disclosure: Jackson worked on the script in a lab at Indie Memphis, where I am employed.] But when the credits rolled after I finally saw the finished film last January at the Sundance Film Festival, I felt like I had encountered something entirely new. And when I say “felt,” I mean in my body: a sinking feeling went from my head down through my feet—a feeling of heartbreak, or recognition. In trying to understand what was different about this particular cinematic catharsis, I realized that instead of personal emotion, this movie elicited collective emotion.
The decades-spanning story centers on a woman from Mississippi named Mack (played by four actors at various ages, primarily poet Charleen McClure in her film debut), whose life is inextricable from family and place. Her parents, sister, community, and home, as well as the surrounding countryside, are all shown in evocative textural shots that vividly illustrate what has made this woman who she is, rather than a more familiar narrative structure that might focus on key dramatic traumas. Instead there are scenes of mourning, dancing, fishing, and the passing on of skills and legacies. Jackson paints a portrait with songs, rain, touch, and, yes, dirt, so that the film is also the biography of a place, and of how nature and rooms remember what happened there.
Jackson is also a poet, and when I spoke to her and cinematographer Jomo Fray (whose credits include Tayarisha Poe’s 2019 Selah and the Spades and Jackson’s 2018 short Nettles), they often invoked “slant rhymes,” using the language and techniques of poetry to create visual continuity. Their collaboration has led to a whole new damn aesthetic: think Terrence Malick, but conjuring an earthy, intimate microcosm rather than a lofty macrocosm. I had the pleasure of diving deep with Jackson and Fray into the making of this singular vision, which screens next week at the New York Film Festival and opens the Indie Memphis Film Festival later this month.
This film is about Mack, but it’s also about the family as a collective body—about the collective narrative, experience, emotion, and memory of a family. How did you find that focus?
Raven Jackson: It was little by little. I often trust what moves me, and I would just keep turning to family. One of the big moments in the creation of this film was during a fishing trip with my parents, when I took some photographs of them. It was earlier in the stages of writing, but taking those photographs really opened doors into the story for me, and especially the land of the film, and into the character Mack. As the film progressed into later stages, I turned to my maternal and paternal grandmas’ photo albums, too, for texture. It became an organic conversation with my own family. I’m very interested in the seemingly small things we carry that are inherited from family or the people we love, and how that can look.
Rose Hill Church adds another layer to this. Rose Hill Church is in Mississippi, where my mother is from. I found that church when I still lived in New York. I was in the photography section of a used-book store, which is where I go when I’m looking for inspiration, and I saw Bill Ferris’s book The South in Color: A Visual Journey, which has Rose Hill Church in it. I thought, there’s no way this church is still standing, but it was. I sent a cold email, and, long story short, we ended up using the church in the film. It’s just an incredible location with such a rich history. In the wedding scene, you hear the voices of Mary and Amanda Gordon singing. They’re pillars of the church, which is still in operation, and they’re in several of Bill Ferris’s photographs. So it’s beyond my family, too. As for “the collective,” I’m always looking to find out: what is the history in these places? In the scene where we first see the women on the riverbank, digging for clay dirt—when we were location scouting, one of the folks said Black women in the church would actually dig for dirt here.
What you just said about photo albums reminds me of Robert Daniels’s lovely review of the film for The Playlist, which described it as being like a beautiful photo album. Jomo, how do you evoke that sense of collective memory in the cinematography? How was that communicated to you, and how did you two find the visual language for that?
Jomo Fray: I think something about Raven that I’ve always found fascinating as a collaborator and friend is that even in our earlier phases of collaboration, there was always a desire to make cinema more sensorial. Those conversations we had early on were like, “Can we smell this image? Can I feel this image? In this image, I want to literally feel the salt on my brow from the sweat of being in the sun so long. How do we conjure that?”
That’s something we always talked about throughout the entire project: how we can create more sensorial feelings and textures in every moment, every image, every gesture, every detail.
For other films I’ve worked on, I can offer a more succinct breakdown of how the visual language came to be, but in this film . . . We had photographic tenets for sure. We made a visual manifesto. We were drawn to texture, we were drawn to macro, we were drawn to close-ups, we were drawn to wides, we were drawn to compositions that speak to spirit, we were drawn to lenses and images which were not necessarily too showy, but allowed the real world to come through. That said, every single day and every single moment, Raven and I kept saying, “We know what we like; let’s keep finding those things and not be afraid if we keep seeing the same composition.” Motifs, like hands, we definitely talked about, but they came out on set a lot more organically. When talking about the visual language for All Dirt Roads, I think the process is the product.
RJ: To piggyback off of that, every day we would read the manifesto we made before shooting. We would read it together, just to get us in the space of what we were trying to feel with the images we were creating. We had a foundation of trust that allowed us to say, “If it don’t look good, we’re not gonna use it! Let’s leave. I’m trying to get this feeling but I don’t see it yet; is it the lens, the position, the blocking?” Just because we started the day thinking it was going to look like this, that doesn’t mean we had to end thinking it was gonna look like that. Not moving on until I felt moved, and really giving ourselves space and time to make sure, before we move on, that there’s something emotional happening here. And yes, trusting the slant rhymes.
Also, one of the strengths of our collaboration is that we infuse our work with play. I’m thinking about the dance scene in particular. The day before we shot that, I remember we were in the back of the truck, eating lunch, probably dehydrated, and we said, “What lenses have we not used?” We pushed ourselves to use really long lenses that wouldn’t usually be used in a scene like that, and it works!
Speaking of the dance scene, you have said that the choice of the song “If I Were Your Woman” came at the last minute, and you spoke about working well under pressure.
RJ: The day we shot that scene, I didn’t yet know that song. I had potentials [in mind], but I didn’t have that feeling yet. I asked my parents if they had some thoughts, and my dad sent along “If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight & The Pips. And right when I heard that song, I knew that one was it.
Jomo, can you talk about what it was to be a DP with a director who works well under pressure?
JF: I think it’s wonderful! I genuinely think that is one of my favorite parts of working with Raven. Cinema is by its nature hubristic. We have the audacity to write in the script: “Day. Exterior. Rain.” We essentially bend and transmute the universe, and we say that this is how it’s gonna be. Then we get a team together, and we have rain power, and we do all these things to try and make it look like it’s raining. But we’re up against a pretty powerful universe, and you’re often left to pick up the pieces of what you said you were going to do today on the schedule versus what is actually happening around you. Sometimes filmmakers can forget that that is a form of hubris, and fall apart under the very real possibility that the universe can push back on your desires. I love working with directors who are great pivoters.
Raven, certainly, comes with an incredible script, but she also treats that script as a living, breathing document. So it isn’t about what is written as a script, but about shooting the emotion that is spawned from reading the script. And once you let go of the rigidity, all of a sudden filmmaking can become so boundlessly exciting. Honestly, our pivots in this movie are without a doubt my absolute favorite images, favorite moments, favorite performances, favorite scenes. There’s a deep lesson in that. A friend of mine recently said this phrase to me: “to hold tightly and let go lightly.”
RJ: We had plans, and we shot-listed. But we were loose the day of. There’s so much possibility in being loose when you’re actually on set with the actors. Listening back to the words you wrote, you ask yourself: does this actually feel truly tuned in?
Raven, you’ve talked about poetry as the experience of feeling emotions under the skin—something that resonates and sits in your belly. Those are such bodily reactions. What does that creative and poetic instinct feel like when it’s right?
RJ: It feels for me like a yes that’s an exhale. It feels like a lightening, or a loosening. I know when something’s working, but I could be betraying myself. It’d be like, yeah, we need to move on; it’s not there yet. I think that’s been really important for me as a creator, to build that muscle of: when I know it’s not there, no one is going to tell me it is.
The no feels to me like more of a heaviness. For instance, speaking of one of our pivots, the shot of Sheila [Atim, who plays Mack’s mother] outside with the baby—there was a moment when we were going to bring fog machines to add some more texture, make it a little more atmospheric. When I saw it, I knew. It doesn’t want that. It wants to be more elemental. It felt false. We had Pam [Shepard], the costume designer, put this little white cloth diaper on the sleeping baby, and you just see her carrying the baby, and that felt like a yes. To answer the question, for me it feels like a yes, but a yes that you feel with your body.
You shot this on 35mm. Was that non-negotiable going into this? Was that always the plan?
RJ: No, I knew it would be shot on film, but Jomo and I had a week ahead of preproduction when we watched a lot of films and did tests. That was very valuable, because there was a point where I thought we might shoot this on 16mm. But we chose correctly. I’m very grateful for that prep work we did.
JF: In the early stages, we did a lot of testing in terms of different ways to process the film, different perforations mixed with different lenses; 16mm is sometimes a bit harder, but so much of this movie has to do with interiority, so we wanted a tool that could really make us sit with people and be inside their emotions and inside of their heads, and have it be incredibly textural, so that you feel the coarseness of the image between your fingers.
It really came back to one of our lines in our manifesto: “be elemental.” We ended up going with 500T 5219 Kodak film, and did a push process for the entire movie. And we only used one stock, even though this movie takes place in different time periods. For Raven and me, these are not flashbacks or flash-forwards. Every single moment, every single frame in this movie, is about Mack dealing with the present-tense stakes of her life at that given moment.
RJ: There’s a line in the manifesto: “to be in the constant movement of time within a never-ending now.” This film is very fluid. I’m not looking for a different texture on Mack when she’s in the 1970s and when you see her in the ’90s. These moments spill into each other, but it’s all present-tense. There isn’t past, there isn’t future. It’s now.
Miriam Bale is a film programmer and critic, and the artistic director of Indie Memphis.