Appalachia is as old as it is complex. Made up of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, the region and its people are home to a mountain range and a history that make it an undeniably special - and even quintessentially "American" - place. Due to a century-and-a-half of reliance on coal as its core industry, one of its defining characteristics has been a "boom and bust" economy that has also made Appalachia a region of poverty and a frequent focus of national attention. From these mountains and circumstances have emerged a complicated, often problematic, and enduring American archetype: the hillbilly.
Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television is a documentary film that examines the iconic hillbilly stereotype in film and television. The film explores more than a hundred years of media representation of mountain and rural people, reveals how the hillbilly icon reflects America's aspirational self-image over the decades, and offers an urgent exploration of how we see and think about poor, white, rural America.
For millions of Americans, the word "Appalachia" evokes a remote and mountainous region that is home to folks who are poor, isolated, uneducated, and who are at risk of teen pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, and welfare dependency -- in short, everything associated with the terms "hillbilly," "hick," "redneck," and "poor white trash."
"We're probably one of the last few groups that it's still politically correct to make fun of," argues Terry Heaton, an Appalachian blogger. "It's still okay to tell hillbilly, redneck jokes. It would be easier for me to laugh at this kind of humor, if the concept were universally applied to all groups. Unfortunately, that's not the case."
Our intention in making this film is to introduce a new perception of Appalachia and its people into American public discourse, to increase awareness and sensitivity around the use of two-dimensional language and humor used to depict rural people, to remind viewers of the power of film and television to play a critical role in shaping the public's perception of rural people, and to provide solutions for counteracting negative stereotypes on a broad level.
Featuring bell hooks, Ashley Judd, and Jennifer Garner, Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television comes at a crucial moment, confronting depictions of Appalachian and other rural people on a broad, national level. It introduces audiences to a nuanced, authentic Appalachia that is quite conscious of how it has been portrayed and the impacts of those portrayals. The documentary deconstructs mainstream representations while asking crucial questions: Where did the hillbilly archetype come from and why has it endured on-screen for more than a hundred years? How does it relate to the exploitation of the land and people who live there? How do Appalachian and rural people view themselves as a result of these negative portrayals, and what is the impact on the rest of America? And, how does the rest of America's treatment of the rural working poor mirror middle and upper class fears about who they are, and who they may become?
We are Appalachian-American filmmakers who are committed to making this film in order to offer the world a rich and varied point of view of this historically misunderstood region.
Ashley York grew up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. She left the region to go to college where she experienced harsh ridicule and criticism due to her distinct regional accent. She later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a degree in documentary storytelling at the University of Southern California where she became inspired by Appalachian filmmakers Anne Lewis and Barbara Kopple, and began producing a body of work about the culture and experiences of rural people. Having personally experienced the media's negative portrayals over and over throughout her life, she has long been eager to make a film like Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television. Ashley's most recent film, Tig, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.
Sally Rubin's mother was raised in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, and Sally spent substantial time growing up visiting relatives, scattered throughout the Tennessee and North Carolinian Appalachian mountains. As a young filmmaker, Sally associate produced David Sutherland's Country Boys, a Frontline film about two teenage boys growing up in eastern Kentucky, and then made her own film (with Jen Gilomen), Deep Down, about mountaintop-removal coal mining in a small eastern Kentucky town. Deep Down was nominated for an Emmy Award for its outreach component, the Virtual Mine, and broadcast nationally on PBS' Independent Lens. The time Sally spent in Tennessee growing up contrasted with her experience making films in the region as an adult has sharpened her sensitivity to both insider and outsider gazes on Appalachia, and ignited her passion for telling the tragic, comedic, and poignant story of Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television.