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



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

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Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”



Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

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Sports and Storytelling: ‘More a Unifier than a Divider’



A rusted field goal post and practice equipment sits on the practice field outside Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Jack Shuler

When we launched our religion vertical, we said, “because religion is community” in Appalachia.  When we talked about a sports vertical, we said, “because sports is religion” here. It is a topic that transcends the playing field —  and brings many of Appalachia’s stories into focus – from the political to the economic to the cultural. Former ESPN sports editor Keith Reed and Pittsburgh native promises a complicated look at the region through this prism.

— 100 Days in Appalachia


Many people are going to see that 100 Days is launching a sports vertical and question it, thinking we’re now bringing them scores and draft updates, but that’s not exactly the goal. What is your vision for our work in this field?

I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural connective tissue. The games themselves are competitive entertainment, but how we consume sports gives us a great opportunity to examine where and how we live. There are so many examples, but the sports economy is a great one. You can tell a community’s priorities based on how it spends its money. Well, in the U.S., we spend billions of dollars every year on sporting events and related items and infrastructure. Professional team owners are mostly plutocrat billionaires. Big time college athletes are indentured labor to millionair coaches while generating billions of dollars for institutions under the guise of amateurism. This says a lot about where American priorities are, even though I’d guess “sports” isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you say, “Appalachia.”

We’re designing this vertical with that kind of context in mind. Everyone has instantaneous access to scores, stats, trade rumors and fantasy updates in their pockets. What they don’t have  that we can provide, is a way to pull back the curtain to see where sports is a barometer on where communities stand with regard to race, wealth, public policy and cultural understandings and divides. That’s where we come in.


Much like religion or food, sports is such an integral part of communities not just in Appalachia, but around the world. What is it about your life experience that makes it such an important topic to you?

Almost every kid has a sport they grew up playing, or watching or at least a team their parents loved. I grew up in Pittsburgh loving the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. I played basketball. I still start or end most days with a boxing workout or exercising with a group organized by a friend who’s a former NFL player. I even coach a team in a women’s kickball league. My sons both grew up playing sports: football, track, wrestling, rugby.

So sports have been a major part of my personal life and I know how influential that can be. In your formative years, you might meet someone you never would have encountered but for the basketball court or football field. Whatever differences you have, you put away because you need your teammate to help make you better and help you win. Coaches can be enormous positive or negative influences. For elite athletes, sports can be life-changing or life-saving. I’ve seen sports across all those transformative aspects, and I believe most people, regardless of background, will be able to relate to those stories.


100 Days in Appalachia’s goal is to take back the narrative people on the outside looking in have created for our region and show the true diversity of this place. How will this vertical expand upon or support that mission?

Sports stories are almost perfect for creating a geographic and cultural sense-of-place. In two well-written paragraphs, I could contrast the atmospheres at a UVa basketball game and a Tennessee Titans game and you’d gain an appreciation for how different a college town in the hills of Virginia is from urbanized Nashville. The populations, infrastructure and community priorities and needs in those two places are very distinct, and that will show up in their sports fans.

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever edited was for ESPN the Magazine, for the very first “One Day-One Game” issue. We sent a bunch of writers and photographers to Houston to cover a Steelers-Texans game, and there was a piece about tailgating and how Steelers fans were exporting this white, working-class ethos and culture common to formerly immigrant communities with them. All those people moved in the 70s and 80s after the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed, and now there’s a diaspora of Pittsburghers living in other cities and following the team from stadium to stadium. A lot of what you see in some of the characters in that story, which I believe we did in 2011 or 2012, showed up at the polls and in the rhetoric around the presidential election in 2016. That tailgating story, about an old-school, blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who talked funny and drank a lot of beer, was a canary in the coal mine.


Rivalries in sports and the divides they create can be almost even more intense than the divisions created by our current political climate. How can storytelling and journalism in this area bring people together?

I think sports fandom, especially rivalries, are more a unifier than divider. Think about that kid who meets somebody from across town on the basketball court. As adults, they may move to different parts of the country, have different levels of education and income, but they keep up with each other over social media and they find common ground in their rooting allegiances. There’s no easier way to get people who’ve grown apart or who have very little else in common than sports trash talk.

I’m a Red Sox fan who lived in Boston and wrote about the team, who dated a Yankees fan.  I’m a Pittsburgh native who’s lived in every other AFC North city, plus Boston. I have friends from Baltimore, Boston, Cincy and Cleveland — all these cities that are supposed to be “rivals” because of sports. Yet, sports is the thing that brings us together. So I think our storytelling can be an entry point for lowering some of the polarized rhetoric from other parts of our lives and engaging one another as fans, and then as people.


What is the potential impact you hope to see?

I don’t have any agenda besides finding and telling good stories. I’ve never done a geocentric, hyper-regional sort of journalism project like this before, so I’m happy to explore what that looks like. I’d like to give opportunity to some talented, young and hungry writers with a passion for telling interesting stories and seeing where those stories lead. That could mean something investigative centered around college athletics or it could be something more fun and interesting. At this point, I just want the storytelling to be good and well-received.

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‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’



In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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