I usually am not drawn to documentaries. I tend to be harsher on them than other films because I expect them to be a vessel for truth, and not just a tool used by the director to get across an agenda. I often feel manipulated to feel a certain way in documentaries and they end up feeling very one-sided so I generally don’t seek them out. Last October I decided to make an exception for the documentary hillbilly when they hosted a screening here at Berea College. My co-workers Silas House and Sam Cole were the producers and I wanted to show my support.
The room was packed! College students, staff, faculty, and community member of all ages crammed into Baird Lounge, munching on popcorn and sipping on lemonade as they waited for the film to begin. There must have been over 250 people present. The enthusiasm was contagious and my expectations began to rise, but I was in no way prepared for the profound impact this film was about to have on me.
Before I delve into my commentary on hillbilly, I feel I should preface that I am not a native Appalachian. I grew up out west in Utah and Idaho and moved to Berea, Kentucky 11 years ago. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my entire life, and I’ve grown to see Appalachia as home, but I cannot claim to be from here. Working as the program associate for the Appalachian Center I have become very familiar with the culture and history of Appalachia, but this documentary touched me on an emotional level that other writings, performances, and presentations were unable to do.
First of all I was deeply impressed with how raw and sincere this documentary felt in comparison with other documentaries. The interviews felt genuine, the scenes didn’t feel staged, and the script was carefully crafted to honestly portray the people of Appalachia, contrary to the stereotypes that are typically perpetuated through the news and other forms of media.
Instead of trying to demonstrate a predetermined point, this documentary felt like it was truly trying to understand the complexities of the political climate in modern day Appalachia. It made you feel as if you were on a learning experience along with the directors and makes of this film. The story line that hit the closest to home was the one of the director, Ashley York, as she documented her interactions with her family during the 2016 presidential election. She was a firm supporter of Hilary while the rest of her family rooted for Trump. Despite their staunch differing opinions you could sense their constant love and mutual respect for one another. I was moved to tears during the scene as they were discussing the results of the election with one another and amidst the celebration the dad took time to acknowledge Ashley’s disappointment and showed compassion and understanding for her.
To me hillbilly is a message of hope during this time of tension between conservatives and liberals. I have often despaired about this divide, feeling it impossible to find common ground, but this documentary proved that not only is it possible, it helped me to understand the reasons why so many Appalachians voted the way they did. This is a documentary to bring people together rather than pushing them further apart. When the lights came on and I looked around me I felt overwhelmed with a fierce love for my community and gratitude for being welcomed into the heart of Appalachia with open arms. I am proud to call Appalachia home.
Written by Heather Dent