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Doc Star of the Month: Ashley York, 'hillbilly'

By Lauren Wissot

Courtesy of The Orchard.
Kentucky-born, LA-residing filmmaker Ashley York (Tig) has devoted a good chunk of her career to tackling issues of gender inequality and advocating for feminist causes. So in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the choice of supporting a glass-ceiling breaker over a pussy-grabber came as a no-brainer. What she couldn’t quite wrap her head around was the equal MAGA enthusiasm shown by her strong-willed Granny Shelby back home in coal country. 

Hence the time was right for York and her co-director, Sally Rubin, to pick up the camera, leave the coastal echo chamber, and embark on a six-state journey of asking questions and truly listening—and in the process knock down some devastating media stereotypes (from Deliverance to Buckwild) about Appalachia, while taking a deep dive into the region’s multifaceted, complicated roots.

Documentary was thrilled to catch up with the co-director and star of hillbilly, awarded Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, prior to the film’s January 8th digital release.

So why put yourself in the film? Was it a difficult decision, and were there times when you were tempted to turn the camera away from yourself?

Ashley York: The decision to include myself as a subject in the film evolved as part of the journey of the creative process. My intention was not to be in the film, but we reached a point in the editing process where it became evident that a personal voice was necessary to communicate the complex and nuanced narrative we were so committed to conveying in the documentary. While I was completely receptive to including myself in the story, I didn't realize how difficult it would be to navigate the challenges of being a subject in a documentary film. 

Being a subject in the film required me to confront some very difficult personal struggles, and ultimately proved to be the narrative element the film needed so badly to bridge the personal and political standpoints of the film. I learned a tremendous lesson about the courage and patience it requires to work with a creative team to tell a personal story, and I feel so grateful that I got to share my voice to offer insight on this misunderstood subject. I hope that sharing my personal experience can help deepen the public’s understanding of Appalachia and the experiences of people who live there.

Billy Redden, who was featured in the 1973 film "Deliverance." From Ashley York and Sally Rubin's "hillbilly." Courtesy of The Orchard.
Your doc makes great use of footage from the ultimate hillbilly flick, Deliverance. By interviewing local Billy Redden—who played Lonnie of “Dueling Banjos” fame in the film, and who now works at Walmart—you point out the irony of a bunch of LA industry folks coming in to exploit the Appalachian region much like industrialists have always done. Since you now live and work in the “belly of the beast,” so to speak, were you at all worried your fellow subjects would see you as part of this historical problem? And are there specific ways you’re continuing to support your community to ensure they don’t view you as an outsider “drive-by” filmmaker?

Because I had been working in Los Angeles as a media producer for more than a decade before I started making this movie, I got the opportunity to see firsthand how productions can exploit the people and communities they represent. There’s a prolific Appalachian historian named Ronald Eller who wrote, “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the ‘other America’ because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.” My understanding of this phenomenon existed when we began making the film, and magnified tremendously as we moved through our process and as I deepened my understanding about the long history of Appalachia being exploited by media and other forms of cultural and industrial exploitation. 

I’ve been so careful every step of the way with this film to create a production process that would involve Appalachian people in creative roles as well as in the media-making process. We surrounded ourselves with subject-matter experts every step of the way. And while we should always question the intentions and motives of any film- or media-maker, I can say with confidence that my appreciation for my hometown and home state of Kentucky has deepened tremendously as a result of living in California for the past 15 years. Throughout the entire time I’ve lived here, I’ve been working on a documentary project about some of my former high school classmates who are serving life sentences in prison. This project has given me the opportunity to visit my hometown over the years and has been transformative to my understanding of where I grew up, and the wide range of experiences people who live there have. In addition to my creative work in my home state of Kentucky, I visit family and friends regularly.

From Ashley York and Sally Rubin's "hillbilly." Courtesy of The Orchard.
You interview one woman who laments the region’s brain drain—basically young men and women like yourself who grabbed the first opportunity to leave. So did any sense of “expat guilt” factor into your
choosing to make the doc, or even in your decision-making throughout production?

I had to leave in order to find my voice, and that’s something that I will forever feel grateful for. My decision to make this film was guided by a commitment to challenge mass-media representations about Appalachia, and to reach communities and individuals who are eager for new representations of themselves as well as viewers and communities who are underrepresented and marginalized in today’s popular media.

My goal is to provide material of interest to mainstream audiences as well as to those who don’t often see their own experiences mirrored in commercial and independent programming, asking viewers to think critically about their own perceptions of the world. I want to break new ground by targeting national audiences and enriching their perspectives by offering a point of view seldom heard. I want to motivate audiences to connect with themselves and others in new and unique ways.

Stories about marginalized and vulnerable communities—specifically women and girls—have never been more timely or necessary. There is an undeniable lack of understanding about gender, sexual and cultural politics in our society. And in a conversation about Appalachia, I thought it would be valuable to elevate the voices of individuals who show us new perspectives about living in Appalachia, thereby illuminating the most pressing social issues of our time and deepening our understanding of the complexity of the human condition.

You go to great lengths to portray the many faces of Appalachia, from “Affrilachian" poets of color, to proud queer “hillbillies,” to your own Granny Shelby, who voted for Trump. But I’m wondering if the region’s “progressive” communities actually engage with their MAGA neighbors, or if they just exist side by side in segregated worlds. Were you driven to bring all these facets together in dialogue in addition to presenting the “real” Appalachia to the wider world?   

The legacy of slavery and the way it has created segregated communities in America throughout our nation’s history is undeniable. We have so much work to do in this country to recognize, reconcile and correct the brutal injustice that continues to systematically disenfranchise people and communities of color.

Our executive producer and subject Silas House taught us on day one that Appalachia is a microcosm of America. This has been a guiding principle in the making of the film. From Silas and so many of our other subjects, including bell hooks and Frank X Walker, we’ve learned and seen the power of activism and literacy to transform perspective. Silas, bell and Frank are my heroes. They were the inspiration for how we chose to tell this story by elevating the voices of people who are rarely heard from in the conversation about Appalachia, including the Affrilachian Poets and queer-identified youth in the film.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of our progressively minded subjects who live in Appalachia co-exist with family members and neighbors who think differently than they do. Silas speaks to this in the scene on Election Day when he’s standing in line to vote when he says, “We are not with the pantsuit crowd.” While everyone in this country can understand how hard it is to relate to those we disagree with, we found so many encouraging examples of people working to find ways to reconcile their differences and advance progress.

The youth filmmakers we spent time filming with during the Appalachian Media Institute’s summer documentary workshop come to mind. While not all of the participants are progressively minded, many of them are and find themselves living and working among their conservative neighbors. I found these young folks so inspiring because of their commitment to interact with their community in a way that allows them to better understand the generational and historical context for their personal and political beliefs. This, in my opinion, is how we advance progress and was my inspiration in choosing to feature scenes in the movie where we see me at odds with some members of my own family who have different political beliefs than I do. While it was, and is, very confusing and maddening to deal with at times, I ultimately navigate this challenge by listening and embracing a compassionate approach.

From Ashley York and Sally Rubin's "hillbilly." Courtesy of The Orchard.
Did you conduct any test screenings in Appalachia? What’s been the response from rural audiences so far? Do you have an outreach campaign to get the film on the radar of rural communities throughout the country?

During production we had a couple of work-in-progress screenings in the region, including at Eastern Kentucky University and at the Appalachian Studies Association conference, where we were able to share our progress with our advisory committee and receive their feedback. We met many of our advisers at an ASA conference, where the film was born in March 2014. We have been so fortunate to have the benefit of their expertise and guidance, and are so grateful to them for all they’ve done to support us and the production.

Our goal was always to make a movie that would offer new representations of Appalachia and the rural experience. We wanted the project to reach both rural and urban audiences, and we’ve been successful in that we’ve screened to a wide range of audiences in both rural and urban America. The film has screened across the country, from Alaska to NYC to Boone, North Carolina and Los Angeles (where we won the Best Documentary Award at the LA Film Festival). What has been so incredibly rewarding, and surprising is to see fellow Appalachians show up for these screenings. We’ve seen so many people become emotional in the Q&A sessions, and express their gratitude for the film. One man began to cry following a screening at the San Francisco Doc Fest, saying that the film touched him deeply because he left Kentucky 20 years ago and felt like he had to leave his mountain identity behind when he moved to the Bay Area. My Aunt Regina, who is featured in the movie, stood up during the Q&A at the world premiere at the 2018 Nashville Film Festival and said to the audience that the film helped her reclaim her mountain identity. She too left as soon as she could at age 17 and moved abroad because of her desire to get out.

And when we had our premiere in Nashville, we were able to share the film with Tennessee native and fellow Appalachian Dolly Parton, who gave us one of the greatest compliments: “I’m happy to see somebody trying to cover us as we really are and not what some people think we are. It’s wonderful, the attention [the movie] paid to so many areas that are so important to all of us.”

hillbilly, a project of IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, makes its digital premiere January 8 through The Orchard.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.