The trailer for “Rich Hill,” a documentary by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, that examines the lives of three young men in rural Missouri. The 91-minute film won the Sundance documentary award last year and was released for Internet streaming this month.
Capturing rural poverty on film is difficult. Media images are never objective; cameras often lie. Sometimes they even exploit. Appalshop filmmaker Elizabeth Barret explored these themes in her film, Stranger with a Camera, by revisiting the murder of a Canadian filmmaker in impoverished Eastern Kentucky during the War on Poverty. “Media images can bring out powerful – and conflicting – emotions,” Barret narrates. “Were those who objected to the images of poor people … afraid they would be blamed for these conditions?”
It’s impossible to ignore Barret’s film while viewing Rich Hill, a documentary by filmmakers Tracy Tragos and Andrew Palermo. The film had its debut last year at Sundance, where it won the grand-jury prize for documentary. After screening nationwide on public broadcasting’s Independent Lens earlier this year, the film is now widely available via online streaming services.
Rich Hill alternates between the stories of Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three deeply impoverished teenagers in rural Missouri. It focuses squarely on their stories. There is little context to their poverty. In some ways this is extremely effective. It allows the filmmakers to meet one of Barret’s criteria for documenting impoverished areas: look past the deprivation and into the lives of the people. Here lies the real wealth of a culture.
Despite this emphasis on character, some parts of Rich Hill feel like they could have been filmed in the early 20th century. Communications technology is largely absent. There is talk of heading out West to prospect for gold and silver. For one family, drawing hot water for a bath means heating it through an appliance that isn’t a hot water heater.
By contrasting these images with the film’s modern trappings, it is at once easier to see how our society is failing these kids and their families. Much like the HBO urban-crime series The Wire, the film’s three subjects represent, in some way, the failures of supposedly democratic systems. We can assume that the characters don’t have access to a well-funded, universal healthcare system that values human life over profit, because that doesn’t exist in America. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry looms over their lives, and they are heavily medicated for a spectrum of mental conditions that are exacerbated by their socio-economic conditions. The ubiquity of bureaucracy is real. Social workers are mentioned like reapers waiting to take people away. The carceral state vacuums up poor working mothers for sticking up for their abused children.
But if there is one truly menacing villain in the film, it is the future. Thirteen-year-old Andrew stresses about it. “I think people expect me to do good things and have a better future than I do now,” he explains. “I don’t even know what to do anymore.” This is an immense amount of pressure to place on a child. It begs the question: When will we stop punishing kids for our sins? When will we finally live up to Thomas Paine’s first principle of civilization, that “the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period”?
This is why, in a film structured so heavily on uncertainty, a historical, economic and sociological treatment is necessary. There are methods of doing this without narration. Simple interviews can provide context. But instead we are presented with a brief, albeit highly poignant, snapshot in time.
And this can be dangerous when it comes to social action. Images of poverty without context seem to appeal to a specific spectrum of activists, from the liberal do-gooder to the smart-capitalist technocrat to the conservative bootstrap enthusiast. I was amazed to hear a discussion about the film on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR show On Point, where well-intentioned callers railed against everything from corporate greed to unenforced regulations to declining industries. It was a bit like listening to a doctor explain how he’s working hard to treat a patient’s cancer symptoms. There was no talk of curing the actual disease: capitalism.
It is not some metaphysical force or failure of human morality that causes poverty. It is a well-calibrated, deliberate system of power. It is the modern era’s totalitarianism, much like the western Catholic Church was throughout the Middle Ages. As legendary east Kentucky activist Joe Begley liked to say, “This country was set up for big industry. And big industry’s not little people.” This is why films like Rich Hill have to make explicit statements that their subjects have rights. Anything less positions them to benefit from welfare, at least, and charity, at best. And this is simply not good enough.
The scary thing about our democracy is that when systems break down they don’t get fixed for a very long time. As time advances, more and more rural communities will find this to be true. But as someone who was raised in a boomtown that is still booming, the implications of complacency, of fixing nothing, are ominous. The promise of capitalism will one day collapse in my rural hometown of Hobbs, New Mexico, and politicians will issue empty platitudes about mobility and community and false options. In a system that truly valued people over capital, these options would be opportunities. Until then, we will have films like Rich Hill that are good at raising awareness of the symptoms, but fall short of damning the disease.