Documentary “hillbilly” seeks to elevate stories, perspectives of Appalachians, challenging stereotypes

Documentary “hillbilly” seeks to elevate stories, perspectives of Appalachians, challenging stereotypes
Amythyst Kiah performs at Seedtime on the Cumberland, a traditional mountain arts festival presented by Appalshop, Inc. Photo courtesy of "hillbilly" filmmakers.

RICHMOND, Ky. — Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ashley York visited her family in Jonesville, Kentucky, on Nov. 8, 2016, the day of the election that ushered Donald Trump into the Office of the President of the United States. She was accompanied by documentary cameras, capturing footage for her latest project.

Image courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

For years co-directors York and Sally Rubin cultivated an idea for a film that would confront Appalachian stereotypes. “hillbilly” will premiere May 19 at the Nashville Film Festival. The documentary explores decades of media representation of Appalachia and its people while showcasing diverse communities throughout the region.

More recent media portrayals of people of the region got the ball rolling on the story for the two documentarians. For York, MTV’s reality show “Buckwild” was the final straw. Rubin said for her, it was character Pennsatucky on “Orange is the New Black.”

“The film seeks to elevate the stories and perspectives of a wide range of people living and working in Appalachia,” York said.

“I’ve thought about media representation for a long time, and I would say this has not been an easy story to tell at all. We are definitely trying to use the film to abolish stereotypes about the region and to show alternative voices,” Rubin said. “At the same time, we are committed to complex, multi-dimensional portraits of this region. Those aren’t one-sided, and they’re not easy to paint.”

Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1976. It is among many films that influenced the filmmakers. Others include Elizabeth Barret’s “Stranger with a Camera” (2000) and Anne Lewis’s “Fast Food Women” (1991). Image courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

York, who received a bachelor’s in journalism at the University of Kentucky and master’s at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, said her time in school made her more progressive. With media’s renewed interest in Appalachia due to the high number of Trump voter turnout, York, a Hillary Clinton supporter in the 2016 election, said she wanted to learn why many, including some of her family members, voted for Trump.

“I really wanted to go and listen,” she said. “I had no ability to think or comprehend or even consider (Trump) was going to win.”

While trying to better understand why individuals voted for Trump, York said she eventually came to a “big reveal.”

“It wasn’t just mountain people (who voted for Trump),” she said. “Rural, urban and suburban people all over this country voted for him. He had more than 60 million votes. And women — women lost so tragically in the election because, you know, people who didn’t necessarily want to vote for him did for a wide range of complicated reasons.”

Youth filmmakers from the Appalachian Media Institute pose for a group portrait before their final screening at the Appalshop Theater. Photo courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

Helping propel the narrative of the film are individuals Rubin and York met throughout research and filming. They work to profile LGBTQ Appalachians, people of color in the region, young artists, mountain people, scholars and more.

One of the subjects in the film is famed Appalachian writer Silas House. House, also a Kentucky native who has long studied and written about the region, teaches English and Appalachian studies courses at Berea College.

“I had been in a film that Sally Rubin had made, called ‘Deep Down,’” House said in a December 2017 interview. “I got to know Sally, and I was just so impressed by how she was not from here, but she cared about the place much more deeply than some people that I know from here.”

House saw how Rubin immersed herself in the learning more about the history and culture of the region, and he was impressed with her as a storyteller.

Rubin, who graduated from Stanford University’s master’s program and currently teaches documentary studies at Chapman University, said time she spent in Appalachia during childhood and while filming other projects ignited her desire to work on “hillbilly.”


Silas House talks with young artists at Berea College. Photo courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

Beyond Rubin’s previous work, House said York’s film “Tig” also caught his eye. When the team approached him to consult on the film, House said he immediately knew he wanted to be involved. House’s involvement in the film also awarded him the title of executive producer and like the filmmakers has hopes for what viewers get from the documentary.

“The main thing is I think that the film shows that we really are a place where our representatives have failed us, but that there are a whole lot of people in the region that are working for change,” House said.

Another adviser of the film is Chad Berry, who also works at Berea College as the academic vice president and dean of faculty. Berry is also an Appalachian and history professor who understands the nuances of the region.

“I’ve always said that Appalachia is the most misunderstood region in the country … Just as no child is born racist, neither is any child born with stereotypical views of people from the Appalachian Mountains. Each kind of thinking must be learned,” Berry said. “So I think the film will be a good piece that updates the long history of stereotypes towards people of the mountains.”

Berry said Appalachia serves a function to this country.

“Every country I’ve ever been to has an Appalachia in it,” he said. “And in those countries, people are taught to think about the people in a part of that country in ways often similar to the ways Americans think of mountaineers here. And these stereotypes can either be positive manifestations or nefarious ones, and sometimes both.”

He added, “I always suggest that if Appalachia, which is a social construct, … hadn’t been invented, we would have invented another one.”

Berry said that media — from film to television shows to journalistic pieces — teach individuals how to view this “most misunderstood” region in America. He said Rubin and York’s documentary can help people “unlearn” the hillbilly stereotype.

Directors Ashley York (left) and Sally Rubin (right) in Los Angeles, California. Photo courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

Beyond support from advisers, York and Rubin have also seen financial support and fiscal sponsorship as they work to turn their idea into a reality.

Financial support comes from humanities councils in West Virginia, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts and private donations. Fiscal sponsors include the International Documentary Association, Southern Documentary Fund and Media Working Group.

Naomi Walker, executive director of the Southern Documentary Fund, said SDF became a fiscal sponsor in January 2015.

“We hold this experienced, talented team of Sally Rubin and Ashley York in high regard. Their direct connection to the story they are telling is crucial to our mission,” Walker said in an email. “It is important to push back on people’s preconceived notions of our region, and that includes fighting stereotypes of Appalachian life and culture that are promulgated by the mainstream media.”

Frank X Walker, founder of The Affrilachian Poets. Walker coined the term “Affrilachia” in reference to the region of Appalachia, a mountain range stretching over thirteen states along the East Coast of the U.S. from Mississippi to New York. Photo courtesy of “hillbilly” filmmakers.

She added, “Appalachia ain’t what you think … The South is actually multi-racial, gender-diverse, of many faiths, economically broad and politically not just red or blue. There is a spectrum of beliefs and opinions, complexity and nuance to every part of this region. It became clear throughout the election cycle that the mainstream media tend to express a reductive view of the region.”

York and Rubin recognize the impact their film could have on conversations about the region as well as the influence it could have in the nation’s narrative.

“I really hope this movie can have an impact on inspiring people to vote in the next election,” York said, noting she hoped it would be screened in universities across the nation. “I think this movie shows the uniquely diverse populations of Appalachia. It’s a film about literacy and education one that has the potential to encourage progress.”

To learn more about the film, visit hillbillymovie.com.

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