October Country is a documentary about people from a strange culture called the Mosher family. It’s a bit of filmed anthropology that makes me wonder how my own species could look so foreign.
Denver Film Festival (32)
October Country shows a year in the life of the Moshers, from Halloween to Halloween. “Family member” Donal Mosher (we don’t know how he’s related to his subjects), is a photographer and essayist collaborating with filmmaker Michael Palmieri.
Grandma Dottie holds everybody together. Her husband Don came back from the Vietnam war a changed man, troubled and broody and negative. Her daughter married an abuser and had a child too young. Of her daughters, one made the same mistakes, (a child too young, an abusive boyfriend). The other is 13 or so, chubby, addicted to video games, but pretty smart at least. The infant Ruby... who knows how she will turn out. Oh, and Don’s sister is a witch. If that weren’t enough, Dottie and Don took in a foster son, Chris, who is a kleptomaniac, or maybe just a punk.
None of this is meant to demean the Mosher family; they seem comfortable to admit their flaws. That’s not to say they aren’t mindful of them, just that they have no illusions. Someone, either Don or Dottie, says “we wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us.” Daneal (pronounced “Danielle”), Dottie’s granddaughter with the abusive boyfriend, says “I would love to break the pattern but I don’t think it’s going to me that does it. It’s going to be Desiree” (the video game addict).
Reality TV is certainly ... TV... But it lacks reality. For that you need to turn to documentaries on American families like this one or Stevie. Watching October Country, I was riveted by what seemed like a train wreck of bad decisions and situations. In hindsight, the Mosher’s probably don’t really have it so bad. But then I think of the B-roll footage of the laundry- dish- and litter-strewn house and then I think maybe it really is that bad. Then again, if I invited a filmmaker and a photographer to study my life, I wonder if I would fare any better.
I don’t know for sure how I’m supposed to read October Country. I see the troubled family and I feel pity for their lot and frustration at their stupidity, and yet I recognize the arrogance in that reaction. Yet is that what the filmmaker intended? It feels that way. Or does my saying so say more about me than about the subjects in the film? As you can tell, this is a great film to discuss over coffee after the screening.
There are a couple of serendipitous scenes in October Country that really make the film unforgettable. In one, we learn that Don hates his obese witch sister, who takes 13 medication for conditions from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis. She also collects unicorns, fairies, and dragons, and she visits cemeteries with her video camera to capture footage of spirits and apparitions (she’s obviously never read Joe Nickell).
Dottie gently characterizes Don’s dislike as a difference in beliefs that makes it difficult for them to communicate. Then Don explains he flat-out hates his sister because she’s useless: “So you’re a witch, fine, but contribute to society. Open a witch store. I’ll even go pick toads for you if you pay me.” The logic of the contempt made me laugh, but it’s the afterthought that Don mentions that makes the scene take on gravity — he says the last thing his sister told him before he shipped out for Vietnam is that she hoped he would die in the war.
Stevie, a documentary about a filmmaker’s “little brother”, has an unbelievable, they-cant-make-this-stuff-up scene of the world’s most passive-aggressive birthday party. October Country has its own claim to fame on a scene that is too good to be true. The film’s climax is Dottie’s big Halloween party; she thinks if the family can come in costume, that maybe they can all get along. The witch sister astutely observes that maybe people will really come as their true selves. By donning masks, they won’t have to put on their family faces; they can reveal their true selves by pretending it’s all a costume. And then the family, out trick-or-treating, run into foster son Chris, in costume, as , well, view this page’s source code if you really want to know. Suffice it to say it’s an unbelievably astute summary of what he learned living with the Moshers.
October Country is a dense, thought-provoking, and unforgettable documentary about a uniquely American family. It’s a documentary made by a filmmaker and a photographer, which means the B-roll footage is gorgeous and evocative, and the occasional A-roll shot is fr