Skip to main content

Talk of the Mountain: Documentary in Appalachia

By Patricia Aufderheide

Three men have their arms raised with a scene of two cowboys projected behind them. From Roadside Theatre's performance of Red Fox/Second Hangin'

At Appalshop the 1960s never died—they just grew up. Now celebrating adulthood at age twenty-one, Appalshop is a media-arts center in the small town of Whitesburg, Kentucky (population 1,500), dedicated to the empowerment of Appalachian people through their art and culture. From a rehabbed warehouse on Whitesburg's winding main street comes a steady stream of films, plays, music, books, exhibits, and festivals.

Appalshop's work tours the country, plays on television, and wins awards at international festivals. But more important to the Appalshoppers, it reaches Appalachians at home.

"When we started, we didn't think we'd be here twenty years later,'' says Herb E. Smith, who fights an elfin image with a handlebar mustache. He was one of the "kids" who, in 1969, stayed an extra summer after high school to work in a poverty-program film workshop teaching media skills to other kids.

"But we're not here by default,'' he goes on. "The founding notion that we had—of letting people show their homeland the way they saw it—is still there."

"A creative struggle to become visible even to ourselves " is how Dudley Cocke describes that notion.

And when Cocke, director of the center's Roadside Theater, talks about maintaining "our identity in the face of powerlessness, self-contempt, and despair," he isn't just referring to the abysmal poverty of the region. (In central Appalachia, the poverty rate is nearly twice the national average—30 per cent of families live below the poverty line—and unofficial unemployment hovers at 40 per cent; nearly half the adults are functionally illiterate.) Cocke also means the self-image that Li'l Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies and decades of well-meaning, but patronizing, network news have fostered.

The struggle to become visible means confronting Appalachia's tradition of brutal conflict over the meaning of progress. Appalshop's work builds on that.

You can see it in Red Fox/Second Hanging, one of Roadside Theater's most durable pieces. Three actors trained in the local folk art of storytelling recount—sometimes tripping over each other, sometimes chorally reciting—a tale of a folk healer. As they talk, the tale becomes a history in the microcosm of the violent forces that have buffeted the region since the Civil War. It's no accident, you learn, that the first coal boom and the first hanging happened at the same time.

You can see it in Joe Gray Jr.'s movie Lord and Father. Joe's father, a tobacco farmer, wanted him to take over the farm. On camera, Joe confronts his father over the condition of the local sharecroppers and the morality of tobacco farming.

And you can see it in Mine War on Blackberry Creek, a television documentary on a violent strike of an A. T. Massey plant at the very site of the action in John Sayles's historical film Matewan.

Is this kind of work controver­sial? Sure. But that is part of its job. As Appalshopper Dee Davis says, "I think we're seen as the loyal opposition. People in the mountains generally believe in democracy. You can say your piece."

That principle was tested with On Our Own Land, which just won the Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University award for independent journalism. On the day I visit, producer Anne Johnson puts a tape in the monitor for me. She had come from New York to Appalachia to help make Harlan County, USA and ended up staying. She created the Headwaters TV show, which now broadcasts seven documentaries a year on regional public television and, occasionally, cable. Sometimes her subjects are as warmly celebratory as a recent piece on Minnie Black, who makes musical instruments from gourds. And sometimes they are as fiercely controversial as On Our Own Land, which is about the broad-form deed.

The broad-form deed, signed by generations of Appalachians, sold the rights to the minerals under the land. As pit mining has become more expensive, strip mining has taken over. Coal companies argued that the broad­ form deed let them strip the surface to get at the coal, but that also meant throwing people off their land. In 1988 in Kentucky, it became an open war between the people whose ancestors dug into the hills before the Revolutionary War and the coal-mining industry.

On Our Own Land unfolds through the voices of local people—both those whose homes are threatened and the coal operators—and through vivid images of the devastated land and public protests of the devasta­tion. You meet a family determined not to move the father's grave. You are shocked at the rubble left by a company that "reclaimed" the land according to the letter of the law. And when a coal-company spokesman allows that, if profits permit, reclamation is a good idea—"If you've got enough margin, hell, put it back and make a golf course," he says—you suddenly envision an Appalachia studded with golf courses without people who can afford golf clubs.

The people of Kentucky outlawed the broad-form deed in late 1988 by ratifying a constitutional amendment by a margin of four-to-one (See: "A Coal-Field Victory," Datelines, March 1989 issue). But not without Appalshop being in on the controversy. The public TV station in Lexington had scheduled the documentary to air the night before the election. Then, blaming a scheduling mix-up, it put an earlier Headwaters show about a one­ ring circus in its place.

Station executive director Ken Press, who can't praise Appalshop’s work enough, said On Our Own Land was a "dynamic, excellent" piece that was also "fairly one-sided." Press is used to taking heat for Appalshop; his life was once threatened by a strip miner who didn't want Mine War on Blackberry Creek on the air. But, he said, he didn't have a pro-coal-company documentary handy to air opposite the Appalshop show.

When the program was rescheduled, Kentucky newspapers lambasted the station for kowtowing to the coal companies. Under pressure, the station aired the show earlier than originally planned (three weeks before the election), with a panel discussion afterward. The tradition of loyal opposition held steady.

On Our Own Land got started through contacts with the activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which led the battle against the broad-form deed. That's typical of Appalshop projects. Headwaters has also worked with local unions, a community group fighting toxic waste, and a local clinic. When I ask who puts an idea into motion, Johnson puzzles over the question. "A lot of the time it's because we've been involved with those issues personally," she says, "We're part of the community, after all."

Johnson and her colleagues are now working with local activists on two new videos, one on the Pittston coal-miners' strike and another on local efforts to control the chemical industry.

On a monitor in the next room, another example of Appalshop's recovery of a highly charged folk heritage is rolling. Mimi Pickering's new video­ tape, Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning, features a local songwriter and was recently named best video documentary at the Atlanta Film and Video Festival.

Among Gunning's works is, "I Hate the Capitalist System." On the monitor, Gunning (recently deceased) explains how all her songs are drawn from her own experience as a miner's wife and widow, as the mother of a child who starved to death and as one of the many who had to leave the region to survive.

New York leftists told Gunning that the phrase "the capitalist system" was too highfalutin', that she should say "the bosses" instead. So, she explains, she set about some research. "And I found out that capitalists are the people with all the money," she says. "So that was who I meant in the first place."

Helping to edit the tape is Helen Lewis, a founder of Appalachian Studies. She knew Gunning and offers some suggestions for cuts and credits.

Lewis talks about troubles with funding such work. She's frustrated because a potential source of money—not the first one—has failed to understand that cultural projects can build community leadership and economic alternatives. "Look at Appalshop," she says, "It's one of the major employers in Whitesburg; it's provided a way that young people can stay here and be part of the revitalization movement.

"Of course, they've been criticized for not collecting and preserving enough of the real traditional music—that they recorded all their young friends. And that is true, too. They recorded the changing styles. In the theater, they take old tales and tell them in a modern way. They've looked at culture as moving and changing, and been part of that moving and changing."

The gut issue for Appalshop is still the simple assertion of Appalachian culture, in the voice of the people who make it. Hammer dulcimer music has been a bestseller for June Appal Records. There's the annual folk-arts festival, "Seedtime on the Cumberland." An exhibit of heart­ breaking turn-of-the-century photographs of Appalachian communities by Picture Man Mullin, a quilting display, and classes in Appalachian studies have been on the agenda. So is a series of films, beginning with Herb E. Smith's Strangers and Kin, a sardonic film that puts a frame around stereotypes of Appalachians and contrasts them with the often-grim history and the vital voices of the region's present.

Appalshop's reputation gets around. Whitesburg mayor James Asher recalls a recent family trip to Rome. His wife spotted a television actor and complimented him. "He asked her where we were from," Asher says. "He said,'Whitesburg? Oh, that's where Appalshop is.' He'd heard about it from Ned Beatty." Beatty became involved because a clip from Deliverance was used in Strangers and Kin. He recently played the lead in Andrew Garrison's Fat Monroe, Appal­ shop's first dramatic feature. The fifteen-minute piece, drawn from a story by a local writer, otherwise features local non-actors and is being considered by public television's children's series Wonderworks.

It's all a far cry from 1969, when Yale architect Bill Richardson came to Whitesburg to administer a grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity and the American Film Institute. Despite their plans to leave when the grant ran out, he and his wife, Jose­phine, stayed and raised three children; he designed Appalshop's new center. But back in 1969, they were strangers. "Nobody knew em," says local columnist Elsie Banks. "They dressed different from us, and they all come in and said this was Appalshop. People were skittish."

Bob Henry Baker, a local poet who now runs Appalshop's exhibition space, doesn't think the skittishness came just from seeing strangers. "Mountain towns had to deal with the counterculture just as the whole United States did," he says. "But here in Whitesburg, people had a real focus. People who were unhappy about change could say,'It's those Appalshop people.'"

But over the years, the "kids," the hill folk, and the townspeople have come to work together. Take four­ year-old radio station WMMT, whose programs range from bluegrass music to Mountain Talk, a call-in show on which locals sound off on such issues as toxic waste. In WMMT's cubbyhole on Appalshop’s ground floor, station manager Jim Webb notes that the station is run by volunteers, forty-one of them at the moment.''We've got ten people working in radio who were trained here," he says proudly.

Roadside Theater, as well, draws in the community in sometimes unlikely ways. Connie Bowman and Kim Neal Cole, two high-school girlfriends from nearby Big Stone Gap, Virginia, got so inspired when a Roadside production came to their school that they started performing their own material for grade-school kids. Today, Cole is a Roadside performer.

"A lot of people believe art is a spectator sport," says Donna Porterfield, who heads up Roadside and comes from over the border in Vir­ ginia, "and I don't." Roadside scripts are developed in readings that community members critique, and first performances undergo refinement from local audiences. One of the plays, South of the Mountains, actually turns to members of the audience to interject their own favorite stories into the scenario.

Seasoned political veterans also come to Appalshop. Buck Maggard, a former coal miner, has been a regional coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on the planning committee of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968, and in the forefront of the movement to fight black-lung disease and strip mining. Maggard is working at Appalshop on a television series about the legacy of the War on Poverty.

"I can't run around the mountain like I used to," he says, "But I'm not ready to go home and sit down.

Appalshop gives me an opportunity to approach the people I've worked with over the years in a different way. And it lets me talk to the young people."

Now that the original Appal­ shoppers have kids of their own, "talking to the young people" has become a major focus of the center. Appalshoppers work with Kentucky teachers on teaching aids drawn from the Foxfire model developed further south in Appalachia, in which school­ children design and publish their own learning materials. And an internship program has been established to train high school students.

"We're gonna develop media artists," says Dee Davis, who launched the idea. "And we're also bringing them into the public discourse, so they can have some say over their future."

Jeff Hawkins, whose family, like so many others, moved away from the region in the 1960's, has taken charge of the program. He now teaches drama at Whitesburg High, a class he designed on the basis of his Roadside experience in which students write and produce their own plays.

Between classes, Hawkins hunts up intern David Sturgill, then a junior. Sturgill is working on a radio documentary about "neglect of the elder people." It's "like a world opening up," he says. What he's most interested in, though, is right at home. "We're considered closed in, ignorant, but I don't think of myself as a hillbilly. I want to learn as much as I can about this place."

Appalshop at twenty-one is both an impressive and a fragile institution. It's a $1.2 million operation, with two­ thirds of the budget drawn from grants and the rest from selling its products—films, videotapes, recorded music on records, tapes, and compact discs, and performances.

But times are hard, again and still, in Appalachia. Deep recession and Reagan-era social policies cut into earlier gains. Everywhere you hear the same refrain: there are no jobs. Alternatives to destroying the land and out­ migration are still lacking.

And the hard times echo back to Appalshop, where it's easier to get an invitation to a Portuguese film festival then arrange an Appalachian tour of Roadside Theater. Where it's quicker to fill orders for videotapes for the entire Denver school system than it is to get the tapes into budget-strapped local libraries.

Every year and every project, the grants must be raised and income earned. Much more importantly, the relationship with what Herb E. Smith calls "our material and our audience" must be tested and developed. "I think what keeps us honest, " he says, "is that the community will see our work. That restrictiveness has been the main source of nourishment."

Pat Aufderheide is Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at The American University and a senior editor at In These Times newspaper.

Reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703. Copyright © 1990, The Progressive, Inc.