The films and filmmakers of the Summer Documentary Institute at Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute.
Above: introducing the film “Not a Daughter” and its creator, Oakley Fugate.
The Work of Place Keeping in Eastern Kentucky
Introduction by Kate Fowler, director of the Appalachian Media Institute:
It’s May in Whitesburg, a small town of roughly two thousand people in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. The redbuds are in bloom on the hillsides and many of my neighbors are out in their yards, tending to gardens. The mountains that covered our valley in darkness during the winter are now full and warm, tangled with honeysuckle and laurel. Early this year our friend confided that winter is a particularly hard time for her. As the leaves fall from the trees, the scars on the mountains become visible and she feels confronted with the long history of coal extraction that has come to define this place. Each winter she wonders if she can make it through. Yet, when spring returns, as the hills fill out again, she resolves to stay.
A year and a half ago my husband and I moved to Whitesburg with an overloaded U-Haul truck and our two dogs. Available housing is hard to find here and we spent our first week as guests in the home of the founders of Appalshop—a media arts organization where I had recently accepted a position. Bill and Josephine Richardson graciously opened their home to us while we hunted for one of our own. Our first days were spent combing through the classified ads and searching the roads, with evenings around the Richardsons’ kitchen table, where we learned about the complex history of arts, culture, and representation in our new community.
In those first evenings we learned that the Richardsons had moved to Whitesburg from New Haven, Connecticut in 1969. Bill had completed an architecture degree at Yale University and received funding from a War on Poverty partnership between the American Film Institute and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to start a two-year Appalachian Community Film Workshop, part of a national program to provide ten “minority and disadvantaged” communities with 16mm film training and tools.
Bill and Josephine still reside in Whitesburg and the Appalachian Community Film Workshop has grown into Appalshop—a forty-eight-year-old organization that has produced more than one hundred documentary films and is host to a radio station, theater ensemble, youth media program, record label, state-of-the-art archive, and creative community development initiative.
Our friend’s dilemma, of whether to stay or leave, has been reflected in the core of Appalshop’s mission since its beginnings. An early Appalshop film, In Ya Blood, produced in 1969, illustrates young filmmaker Herby Smith’s internal quandary—to leave Whitesburg and attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville or to stay home and work in the mines. After receiving his degree, Herby returned to his filmmaking career at Appalshop, where he’s still working today.
Many involved in Appalshop’s youth program Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) have relayed their own similar personal conflict, whether to leave for higher education or higher-paying work elsewhere, or to stay in the place they love with their network of family and friends. Brandon Jent, an alumnus of AMI’s 2015 Summer Documentary Institute has experienced the heartache of leaving his home culture, deep community, and family ties to further his education. He states:
Home is Colson, Kentucky in Letcher County—a small little place about 20 minutes out from the county seat, Whitesburg. Home is land that’s been divided up in my family from Deane to Isom, from generation to generation, from family gardens to churches to coal mines and a train that used to pass behind my house so frequently that I stopped noticing it.
Home is promising. Home is knowing that it was tough to live at home, that it’s still tough, that it may always be tough. Home is knowing that it’s worth it.
Generations of eastern Kentucky youth have had to contend with the question of whether to leave, alongside the demeaning narrative of the rural “brain drain.” This reductive theory posits that the best and brightest minds leave rural communities for urban communities. This simplification of data ignores the stories of those who choose to stay or are not able to leave. For many young people here, it is an act of resistance to stay in the community they love, or like Brandon, to return home.
In March, the New York Times published “Why I’m Moving Back Home,” an op-ed by author J. D. Vance. Announcing his return to “rural America,” Vance presented his move from Silicon Valley to Columbus, Ohio as an event worthy of a press release. “It’s jarring,” he states, “to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you come from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse.” Reflecting on the “real struggles” of life in rural America, Vance added, “It wasn’t an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.”
Following the election of President Trump with 62% of the rural vote, Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, gained the attention of a nation reckoning with the growing divide it had long ignored. Since then, Vance has become a prominent voice in discussions surrounding the political, cultural, and economic climate in the rural East from the coalfields of eastern Kentucky to the Ohio rust belt. Winter is tough here, but Vance was talking about Columbus—one of our nation’s fastest growing mid-sized cities. For many living in these mountains, there are starker worries: access to clean drinking water, health care, nutritious food, employment, and livable housing take precedence over concerns about the weather.
Eastern Kentucky is no stranger to the complexity of media representation. For nearly a century, this area has witnessed the dual capacity of documentary storytelling to both impact social change and reduce a people to a simplistic, often derogatory, stereotype. A powerful example of this dichotomy is Harry Caudill’s 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which inspired Lyndon B. Johnson’s federal War on Poverty and catalyzed a national discussion about the disparity between the quality of life in the suburbs of postwar America and Caudill’s home—Whitesburg itself—in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Revealing the controlled poverty of an extraction-based economy, Caudill outlined the economic, environmental, and human toll of an industry that supplied fuel to our nation’s steel mills, households, and military.
The release of Night Comes to the Cumberlands accelerated the national media’s extensive coverage of life in the Appalachian mountains: sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies (1962) and documentaries like CBS’s Christmas in Appalachia (1965) through PBS’s Country Boys (2006) and an abundance of contemporary films, television shows, novels, and journalism, including Ron Howard’s forthcoming film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy. Too often, the narratives that define economically impoverished communities are created by those who have left (or were never there in the first place). These perspectives seldom offer the richness and complexity of those shaped by residents, whose stories develop over time, through relationships, and with a depth of context that is hard to achieve in the media industry.
It’s important to acknowledge the valuable role of the national media in the widespread dissemination of stories, yet we should not regard national media professionals as the primary authority or voice in any narrative of place. Indeed, dynamic representation requires a diversity of perspectives—from the nuance and knowledge of life within community to the critical distance afforded to those outside of it.
For nearly five decades, there has been a sustained movement of eastern Kentucky residents who have used media as a tool to critically address the challenges and opportunities of their home. Many of these residents are committed to staying in or returning to their communities—in spite of an economy that is recovering from the collapse of its primary industry, and challenges in not just quality of life, but subsistence. In his New York Times essay, J. D. Vance proposes that not all communities should be economically saved. After my short time in eastern Kentucky, I’d contend that for places such as Whitesburg, we should move beyond a rhetoric of “saving” and listen to the strong narrative that’s coming from these hills of arts, culture, talent, and resistance. This is not a community worth “saving,” it’s a community worth investing in, and its narrative runs far deeper than the contemporary discussion prompted by Vance or the 2016 presidential election cycle.
“Growing up, I really didn’t know until my teenage years that my home was any different from the rest of the world,” reflects twenty-three-year-old filmmaker Oakley Fugate, who came of age during the collapse of the coal industry. Early on, Oakley was encouraged to work toward a future outside of the mountains, to leave his home. “It wasn’t until I got older [that] people told me I had to leave, that the only reliable career was in the coalfields. My teachers told me to give up on filmmaking, that there would be no way to make a living off of it, but media making is what drives me in life. I don’t want to leave. There really isn’t another place like home, a place that I’ve lived and know the majority of the people. I couldn’t make my films anywhere else.”
Over the next four weeks, we will share a series of films produced in collaboration between the youth filmmakers of the 2016 Summer Documentary Institute at Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute and filmmaker Jordan Freeman. The films show excerpts of the documentary projects produced by filmmakers Oakley Fugate, Elyssia Lowe, Josh Collier, Jaydon Tolliver, Aaron Combs, and Oliver Baker, along with interviews about their motivations and processes. Their full documentary films can be viewed here.
The videos were supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism non-profit devoted to covering inequality in America, and its Puffin Story Innovation Fund.
Kate Fowler is a documentary filmmaker and photographer from Richmond, Virginia. Before joining Appalshop as Director of AMI, Kate worked for the Magnum Foundation as Program Coordinator of the Photography Expanded initiative. Previously, Kate co-directed a series of photography workshops throughout Europe and NYC with the Italian school of photography, Spazio Labo’. She holds a BFA in Photography & Filmmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University where she interned at LOOK3 and served as a facilitator during the Tasmeem Design Conference in Doha, Qatar.