Memory Takes a walk: 'All Dirt Roads Taste of salt'
A loving story told through the phases of one woman's life
As part of Black History Month, we are focusing on several films from Black filmmakers that premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, is a vibe film—it is a sensory experience more than it is a sustained narrative. In fact, it doesn’t care about narrative plot; it doesn’t care about your definition of how time is supposed to work. It cares about sound, imagery, the impression certain details can make, the way memory makes a jumble of chronology. Yes, there is a story. But what matters most are moments and the mundane things that happen within those moments. It’s a film concerned with poetics and metonymy in how it seeks to recreate a touch, a specific sound and how these can contain more heft than a phrase or string of dialogue. It’s a film made up of ephemera whose tactility lingers in the palm long after it has faded from sight—it’s at once dream-like and tangible.
The story follows a young Black woman, Mack, through different stages of her life in the rural south allowing the film to take on a meandering, associative kind of logic. It moves back and forth in time, scenes bleeding into one another—the connective tissue more like echos running through them. An opening scene of Mack and her sister fishing with their father establishes the visual language of the film. The camera is more interested in hands than it is faces. Think about Bresson’s use of hands and you’ll get a sense of what Jackson is doing: hands hold a fishing rod, hold a fish, sink into a riverbed and come up covered in mud and silt to be washed over with water and plunged in again. The film will maintain this focus on hands and what they signify, the way they form a connection between people and place. Hands dig in the dirt, skim river water. A budding, nervous couple hold hands on a walk. The hand of Mack’s lifeless mother wet in the pouring rain. It’s striking and bold, and shows Jackson’s skill and confidence with metaphor.
People are often filmed as if the camera (and by extension the viewer) is another character in the film. Characters are framed from behind so that we follow them down a dirt road, we see them at a distance, talking, after climbing a tree, we are at the table with them as they prepare fish for dinner. We hear them, too. The soundtrack to this film is the world itself: bits of dialogue, the scraping of scales, cicadas, the way water runs as a river and falls as rain. This is sound design that lets you smell the outside air.
Think back and you can remember days when the magnificence of the natural world seemed overwhelming. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is specific to the point of relatability, it moves through the world capturing beauty in the guise of mundanity and knits them together into a languid and lyrical journey. The film is memory taking a walk through life capturing all the things that make us human: heartbreak, love, loss, grief, and joy.
Brock Kingsley is a writer, artist, critic, and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a regular contributor at the Chicago Review of Books.