Thoughts of Appalachia may stir up visions of either hillbilly backwoods or quaint Edens, but both miss the complicated truth illuminated by three documentaries coming to public TV.
The docs diverge in their depictions of the mountain region, which stretches from Canada to Alabama, but all aim to give a nuanced portrait of Appalachia and its nature, economy, culture and people.
“People kind of think they know something about Appalachia, but they really don’t,” says Ross Spears, director of one of the series. They are:
* The Appalachians, a four-hour doc executive-produced by Mari-Lynn Evans. [As of July 2005, the series as been trimmed to three hours and distributed by American Public Television in spring 2005. Phylis Geller wrote and produced the series.]
* Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People, also four hours, from the James Agee Film Project. [As of July 2005, Spears expects PBS will distribute the series in late 2006 or early 2007. Oregon Public Broadcasting and Kentucky ETV are co-presenting stations.]
* Country Boys, a six-hour series by David Sutherland. [The series is expected to air as part of Frontline in 2006.]
The Evans and James Agee Film Project series track the region’s development over hundreds of years. In Sutherland’s contemporary epic, eastern Kentucky’s landscape and poverty frame a coming-of-age story of two teenage boys.
Outsiders may know the Appalachians best for their natural beauty and folk traditions. But the sweep of the mountains embraces big cities, a diverse economy and people of all races, including blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.
“Its people are not all white folks sitting on porches, playing dulcimers,” says Jamie Ross, who is co-producing and co-writing Appalachia with Spears.
An e.p. who’s been there
To the chagrin of true Appalachians, stereotypes such as the Clampett family of The Beverly Hillbillies are hard to erase. Just last year, CBS proposed a reality series based on the ’60s sitcom in which a real-life backwoods family would be dropped Dorothy-like into Beverly Hills.
In the ensuing uproar, coal miners picketed a Viacom shareholders’ meeting in New York and Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) called the show “bigotry for big bucks.” CBS shelved the idea, but Reuters recently reported that NBC revived it and has quietly started shooting.
To Evans, e.p. of The Appalachians, such distortions are as old as, well, the hills.
“People honestly make comments to me like, ‘Did you have an outhouse?’” says Evans, who grew up in West Virginia on her grandparents’ farm. “Not only are these stereotypes personally damaging, but they’ve been really economically damaging. They’ve hindered a lot of outside investment in the region because people have this image that people in Appalachia are lazy or shiftless.”
Evans’ childhood home did have indoor plumbing. But her family had to drive 30 miles to reach the nearest grocery store, and she didn’t eat in a restaurant until she was 16.
She recalls her great-uncle looking out each morning over the Corps of Engineers lake that flooded her grandparents’ farm.
“I asked him one time, ‘How can you bear to look over there?’” she says. “He had tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Because that’s still my home.’”
Driven to do justice to the region, Evans embarked on her doc in 1998. The topic is a departure for her company, Evening Star Productions, which has produced mainly health-related programs, including PBS’s Living Well: A Guide to Healthy Aging. Evans’ director, Tom Robertson, has overseen after-school specials as well as music shows for TNN and Country Music Television.
The two-part, four-hour series is “the most comprehensive film ever done on Appalachia,” Evans says, with a narrative starting with the Native Americans who first inhabited the region and ending in the present. It chronicles colonial times, the arrival of industry and the bloody fights between coal miners and company bosses that fueled the spread of organized labor throughout the nation.
The Appalachians draws on interviews and diaries to present the lives of mountaineers and their contributions to the region’s development. Filming took Evans as far afield as Ireland, where she documented the immigrants who came to the region in the 1800s and helped shape its familiar folk culture.
Music is featured prominently, perhaps boosting the doc’s appeal to a public that took strongly to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its Southern-folk soundtrack. Among the 50 interviewees and performers in The Appalachians are Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill and, in what Evans says may have been his final interview, Johnny Cash. Ralph Stanley, his profile heightened by O Brother fame, also appears. Naomi Judd narrates.
WETA in Washington, D.C., was to be a producing station, but Evans says she split with the station because it was unable to raise enough money. A WETA spokeswoman said the station and Evans differed over the series’ length and format. Evans has yet to choose a new presenting station.
Geology as destiny
Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People covers some of the same territory as The Appalachians: Native inhabitants, the arrival of industry, union battles. Yet it focuses more closely on the region’s unique flora, fauna and geology, beginning with the birth of the mountains 400 million years ago.
The mountains are the main character, say Ross and Spears, who set out to explore the concept of geology as destiny. “A geologist said tectonic complexity produces a complex society,” Ross says. “Wherever you find tectonic complications, you find complicated people.”
Appalachia also highlights biodiversity. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, contains more species of trees than all of Europe, Ross says. In line with its focus, the major funder of the $2.5 million doc is the National Science Foundation, with additional help from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Spears and Ross, who both hail from Appalachia, began their film in 1997 under the auspices of the James Agee Film Project, based in Riverdale, Md., which produces works about the South. They had just finished a series on modern Southern literature, Tell About the South: Voices in Black and White, when a colleague at the movie’s premiere suggested Appalachia as their next subject.
The film’s four hour-long segments cover the French-Indian War, the Civil War, the displacement of the Cherokees, and the devastating blight that wiped out countless chestnut trees in the early 20th century. Biologist Edward O. Wilson, black cultural critic Henry Louis Gates and authors Barbara Kingsolver and Lee Smith provide commentary.
Six public TV licensees in Appalachia, including Kentucky ETV and West Virginia Educational Broadcasting, are reviewing scripts and promoting the film. Like Evans’ film, Appalachia is tied to a book, this one the 2,000-page Encyclopedia of Appalachia, compiled by the Center for Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.
My so-called Appalachian life
Rather than survey the Appalachians through a wide-angle lens, David Sutherland zeroes in on two teenage inhabitants. The worn storefronts, modest homes and misty, tree-clad hills of Lloyd County, Ky., appear mainly as a stage for familiar dramas of maturing, finding love and struggling through school.
“It’s more universal,” Sutherland says of Country Boys. “It’s not just about Appalachia.”
Country Boys extends the labor-intensive verite style Sutherland used to acclaimed effect in The Farmer’s Wife, the 1997 film that followed a Midwestern farm couple through two years of economic hardship and marital strife.
As with The Farmer’s Wife, Country Boys will air on WGBH’s Frontline, which is contributing $600,000 to the film’s $3 million budget. ITVS, another co-producer, is kicking in an equal amount, and the PBS/CPB Challenge Fund is providing $1.2 million.
Like all of his projects, the six-hour film has been all-consuming, Sutherland says. His practice of recording sound with multiple wireless mikes yielded more than 600 hours of sound to transcribe, edit and reconstruct.
“I’m a dinosaur,” says Sutherland, who doesn’t expect anyone to imitate his creepingly slow production process. “I defy anyone to be insane enough.”
He began Country Boys shortly after The Farmer’s Wife aired. Initially he considered creating a portrait of an Appalachian valley and began pursuing subjects by befriending local church leaders, a strategy he employed for his previous film.
His focus switched to teenagers as he discovered, to his surprise, that Internet connections and satellite dishes wired them into pop-cultural currents and upended the stereotypes of isolated towns.
He found his subjects, Chris Johnson, 16, and Cody Perkins, 15, at a special high school in eastern Kentucky for students who felt out of place in other public schools.
Cody sports body piercings, a studded dog collar and bleached hair that turns him into what he calls “the town attraction.” Yet he is a devout Christian, performs religious heavy-metal songs and aspires to preach.
He lives with the mother of one of his stepmothers. In Cody’s youth, his father, clad in a trench coat and bearing an AK-47, shot Perkins’ stepmother and himself in a strip club.
Chris, a heavyset bear of a young man, inhales cigarettes and has circles etched under his doleful eyes. His father is an unemployed alcoholic. “My father’s not much of a role model. I mean, I don’t exactly want to be like him,” Chris says. Country Boys follows Chris as he wrestles with school, then drops out to work a fast-food job.
Inspired in part by the fictional high-school TV drama My So-Called Life, Sutherland tracked the boys for three years, from bleary-eyed dawns on school days to working lives marked by frustration and redemption.
Viewers will relate to these boys, Sutherland says. Chris pursues a girl who dashes his hopes in a painful on-camera moment. In another scene, Cody, who has a girlfriend, suffers the kind of embarrassment teenagers know most keenly.
“Cody, what is layin’ here? Hmm?” asks the woman who acts as his mother, stooping to his bedroom floor.
Cody hesitates, then answers gravely, “It’s … a condom.”
“It’s my most close-up piece of work,” Sutherland says. “You will be on these dates with these kids. You will feel them breathing and sighing.”
He compares his subjects to Juanita Buschkoetter of The Farmer’s Wife — protagonists driven to face down adversity.
“If they’ll go the distance and if they have that trait in them, then it’s worth hooking up with them to go on a ride,” Sutherland says.
The result, he says, is a film that challenges expectations. Like the Appalachians, teenagers get judged harshly and often without justification.
“With teenage kids, man, you better have an open mind,” Sutherland says, “because they’re gonna prove you wrong, and you can never write them off.”