The term “hillbilly” can mean anything from a term of endearment to derogatory slur…it all depends on where it comes from and how it’s meant. In their new film Hillbilly, Sally Rubin and Ashley York look at the people, region and stereotypes that created our image of the people of Appalachia. From the historical and political perspective, to how the image was cemented in pop-culture in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance. But the documentary is also interested in what it means to be from this part of America today and role our class/regional divide played in our current political state. We spoke with co-director Sally Rubin about examining this part of America.
Lesley Coffin: How did you and Ashley come to the decision to make a movie that addressed this subject matter?
Sally Rubin: The film kind of deals with several issues, some we really wanted to dive into right away and in other cases we found we had to discuss these issues because of what was happening in the country at the time. We started the film in the fall of 2013, and Ashley and I had each had very different experiences in Appalachia and are both interested in media representation. So, we thought a film tackling the media stereotype of Appalachians was something that hadn’t been done before. But it became more political during the presidential election. Trump happened, and it became clear how divided our country is. On the most personal level, my mom grew up in East Tennessee and growing up in Boston, it was not cool to come from that part of the country. I saw my mom’s experiences, being from the rural south and having to deal with stereotypes in an urban center.
Lesley Coffin: We hear about how Ashley deals with that in film very directly. But what were some of the stereotypes your mother felt were either inaccurate or very painful?
Sally Rubin: Well, my mom’s a psychologist and liked to talk about how being in Boston, she’d often hear “You come from there?” People were always surprised that a woman working in that field would have come from that part of the country. That always stood out to me. I’m a great hater of hypocrisy and feel that coming from liberal Boston, all these people who would never talk about a person’s gender, sexual orientation, or race would happily throw around the word redneck. They wouldn’t just do that with impunity, but they’d say it as if it made them cool. And I never understood that thinking, you’re making fun of people because of where they come from. But it was after making a few films there that I developed an interest in this idea of “alt-Appalachia” that we present in the film.
Lesley Coffin: You address in the film that when journalist or filmmakers have gone to these parts of the country in the past, they often come with judgement and are either looking down on people or exploiting them. When you’ve gone, for this film or any of your others, did you feel that tensions or suspicion from residents?
Sally Rubin: As we talk about in the film Appalachia has a very long history of feeling exploited by the media, not to mention politicians and big business. So that would be a very fair opinion for them to have. But Ashley’s from there, she has her accent, so she just needs to open her mouth and people know where she’s coming from. And I have 20 years of filmmaking in and around Appalachia, so I wasn’t a stranger. A lot of the people in the movie were in my last movie or knew people in my previous movies. We also decided to bring on Silas House as executive producer right away because we knew the kind of doors he could open for us. And that’s also the reason we spoke with scholars and historians early on, so we’d have their endorsement when we came into their space. That’s a very Appalachian approach, it’s all about who you know, that’s how they protect themselves from outsiders.
Lesley Coffin: One of the interesting points you make very early in the film is that this image of poor, white people in Appalachia we see in the media ignores the fact that there are people of color living alongside them. When did you start seeing this broader perspective of the demographics and see the singular stereotype that seems to exist?
Sally Rubin: We didn’t realize starting out that focusing on the true variety of demographics of people there. We started the film talking about media stereotypes and what’s wrong with them, but one of our advisors said, “It’s nice that you’re make a movie about what people of Appalachia aren’t, but you need to also say what they are, otherwise you’re leaving a vacuum.” That’s when we started to add these alt-Appalachia identities and the movie became much richer when we added that in.
Lesley Coffin: You show a lot of the negative portrayals that have been in the movies and television, but you also made a point to include some of the positive portrayals which people of Appalachia have embraced. Did people talk to you about the media representations they felt reflected their lives and experiences?
Sally Rubin: Not many. If they mentioned it, like Coal Miner’s Daughter or Dolly Parton, we included it. Someone brought up Matewan and a couple people mentioned October Sky. But it was eye-opening and sad how few there are. We felt it was important to show some of the positive images, but it felt more important to present the damage these negative portrayals have had.
Lesley Coffin: There is the political aspect of the film and a lot of the people interviewed spoke of feeling abandoned or ignored by the government. Did you reach out to any of the politicians who represent them?
Sally Rubin: We’d finished shooting by the time we decided to dive into the presidential election. We’d wrapped and then decided we needed something more personal, so Ashley went back and inserted herself and her family into the film, creating the glue. It would have just been too late in the game to approach those politicians?
Lesley Coffin: What made you feel it was important to have that personal connection on screen?
Sally Rubin: There were really two reasons. First, we had a lot great characters, but no one gluing it together. Silas played that role a little bit, but it wasn’t totally cohesive. But we also knew that Ashley and her family were essentially living a microcosm of what America was going through, they were deeply divided politically. And we felt that by personalizing it, we would avoid the film feeling to niche.
Lesley Coffin: Even though Ashley and her family were divided, it didn’t seem that they were having big fights or were unwilling to hear each other out.
Sally Rubin: I think that’s true, and I think Ashley was mindful to avoid doing that because the cameras were rolling. Neither of us wanted to turn that family drama into a reality show. Because her family can stand as a model for how we can come together as a country by listening across the political divide.
Lesley Coffin: As a teacher, have you shown the film to students to see how the film plays with people who may have very little exposure to that part of the country, sort of testing the biases they might not even be aware of that the film brings up?
Sally Rubin: I’ve shown it a couple of times, most of my students come from Orange County. And I can honestly say, they love it. It really resonates with them, I think it plays stronger in their demographic because it’s helping to explain why they’re seeing such a deep divide in our country. They like the media clips, they laugh at some and then say, “I didn’t even realize the impact those clips were having.” It feels like it’s so much easier to move young people.
© Lesley Coffin (1/16/19) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media’s review of the film HERE.
Photos: Still/Landscape of Appalachia
Photo Credits: The Orchard