How To Portray Poor People: A Conversation With a Rich Hill Director

The great service of Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo's film Rich Hill is that it makes accessible stories that are so often willfully ignored. The documentary winner of Sundance's Grand Jury Prize profiles three boys: Andrew, 13, Harley, 15, and Appachey, 12, who live in Rich Hill, Missouri, a town of 1,393 on the brink of economic collapse. All three deal with poverty on some level, but that's far from their only issue. With a stunning frankness (and while chain-smoking), Appachey describes his father's abandonment; Harley discusses being sexually assaulted by his mother's boyfriend. Rich Hill is modest in its slice-of-life approach to the stories of town's boys, but extraordinary in its effect.

"These stories, these families, they're not unique. Rich Hill is not this super, extra poor town. It's average. There are lots and lots of towns like that and lots of lots of families like that," Tragos told me when I talked to her about the movie earlier this week. Her father lived in Rich Hill, though he died in the Vietnam War when she was a baby. Still, she spent her summers and various other school breaks there with her paternal grandparents. She calls the town "a second home."

Tragos says the movie was conceived via a conversation with Palermo, her cousin, who also spent time in Rich Hill: "We got to talking about it—how much we love the community, but also the people are struggling and suffering there and what's going on. There are some moments when things click, and it just instantly clicked. Neither he nor I let it go."

The resulting documentary is in select theaters today. An edited and condensed transcript of my chat with Tragos is below.

Gawker: Did Harley's mom's case have anything to do with you deciding to make this movie? [Harley's mother attempted to murder her husband after discovering that he had sexually assaulted her son.]

Tracy Droz Tragos: No, we hadn't heard about it. We knew that we wanted to understand what was going on for the families that were struggling there. We knew we wanted to shed light on that. We didn't know who the authors of the story would be, by any means. We got there and started meeting with and talking to people.

Did you always know it was going to be young boys that you were following?

We went to the school, but we didn't know the focus was going to be kids. But then again, that was something that pretty early made sense. We realized it would be harder to dismiss kids. Often these families were dismissed for their own "failings"—their choice that they are in the circumstances they're in, their living off the system, they have an inferior moral compass, they should smoke less, and then they wouldn't be so poor. But [we knew] that if we focused on the kids, it would be harder to judge them like that, harder to shrug them off.

Were there challenges on the other side of that? Was there any sort of internal conflict morally about putting kids out there like the way you do?

Yeah. There was a lot of conversation. Conversation with parents, and going back to Harley, conversation with him about sharing his story, and how that would feel for him and did he want to do that and, "Imagine being at a film festival," where indeed he was, and sharing that with an audience and imagine having it be on TV and knowing a lot of people were going to see that. For him in particular, he was quite clear that he wanted that story out there and that he wanted to share that in a kind of way that I think he was wanting us to bear witness and that there was some relief. He wasn't talking about it, there weren't people talking to him about it, people in town didn't know, the school didn't know. And I think that was a burden. It would come up for him a lot, like it did in the movie on that Halloween night [scene], it would come up randomly because it was so top-of-mind for him. It was something he was struggling with, and he wanted it to be known.

Did the ease with which these boys shared themselves in front of the camera surprise you?

Yes. It's an honor that they had the courage, and I hope we didn't do anything to violate that trust and their willingness to be as open and honest as they were. It's also something that happens over time and there's an intimacy that you have. I think when you step back, that's when you might be surprised. This happened. There was a time that I didn't know Andrew, Harley, and Appachey, and isn't it amazing that I got to know these three kids, and they're in my life right now.

It sounds like there's a strong rapport there. Did you worry about that affecting your objectivity as a documentarian, or is objectivity even a consideration for you?

We were telling a very subjective story to begin with. We were telling it from their perspective. There may have been judgment that I had about some things, and certainly there was more intervening that happened than actually made it in the film, like telling Harley that he should go back to school, or telling Appachey that smoking was really bad for him. But that was all off-camera. I suppose the involvement is where it was hard, but the way we straddled that was we didn't include it in the film. But we were involved.

I think the sharing of Appachey is audacious because he is not exactly likable. He is, in fact, unlikable. And you understand why he is unlikable, but the effect is what you really feel.

I think he's the hardest for some people, but it's interesting, some people are particularly drawn to him. We wanted to be true to who they were and are, in some cases. I mean, there's the film, and there's who they are now, and some of their trajectories have shifted even because of their participation in the film...

Really? How so?

They have participated in the film, they've gone to film festivals, they have a camaraderie among each other. You know, Appachey, after our first screening at Sundance, was in tears. I thought it was about him, and sharing his story, but he was touched by Harley's story, and really moved by him. They then had a sleepover that night. I'm not going to say that in their lives, everything's better now and that it's all fixed, but Andrew is here with me in New York right now and is going to do a Q&A with me, and he's talking a lot about how much he hopes this film will...open people's hearts.

The thing about Appachey being so difficult, it makes the affectionate scene with his mom outside the courtroom such a payoff. Elsewhere in the film, we see her yelling at him a lot. Was that uncomfortable to witness firsthand?

It was very uncomfortable, and when I think about Appachey, the thing I took away from him was his deep capacity for forgiveness. It was very intense. [His mom] Delana now, she's one of the film's strongest supporters, and has this perspective that this was a very stressful time in her life, and her own capacity for change. But yeah, it was totally intense, and there were times when it felt like there were so many kids, they were all on top of each other fighting, and you just wanted to open the doors and get everybody out of there because it was stressful.

I love that the Variety contrasted Rich Hill with Boyhood: "Surfacing at Sundance, where Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood presents the happy-ending version of rural coming-of-age, Rich Hill feels equally attuned to poignant small moments that collectively amount to childhood..." Culturally, what most impressed me about Rich Hill was its investment in Americana, but the side of it that is often left out: the stories of disenfranchised people.

These stories, these families, they're not unique. Rich Hill is not this super, extra poor town. It's average. There are lots and lots of towns like that and lots of lots of families like that.

When you talked about awareness, was that among your main objectives with this movie? Just to show what you're showing?

Yeah, exactly. It's a different kind of awareness. Let's go inside these homes that you just kind of want to drive by that belong to families that are so easily dismissed as statistics and living off the system. This notion of people that are undeserving of [sharing their stories]. We were going into these homes, we hoped, in a different kind of way, in a way that wasn't just in/out, "Here's a quick look, oh my god isn't it awful?" We hoped to get past some of that stuff and show you these real human beings and these real families that are complex and that have made mistakes, but that even in the context of making mistakes, they're still worthwhile.

Can I read you the harshest critique of Rich Hill that I've read?

Sure.

It's from Slant's review: "Rich Hill is poverty porn, examining lower-class spaces with pity as its operative mode and engendering little more than a means for viewers to leave the film acknowledging its sadness." What do you think of that critique?

We didn't want to do that. We hoped that we didn't do that. I think it's absolutely valid that that's his experience, but we didn't want you to pity these guys. We wanted there to be moments of transcendence. We thought a lot about that. And it was a lot darker at times than what we shared. We didn't go there because we thought that would be exploitive. We thought about every shot. We thought about including a shot of a trash pile, and was that poverty porn? We actually used that phrase and said we didn't want to go there. We thought that was the treatment that, in large part, we'd seen before. We wanted to give moments of reflection and not just on the challenges, but on the love and the resources that were there but not necessarily tied to material things. We wanted it to be an emotional film. Ultimately, I'm sad that he didn't take that away, but I think on the other hand, pornography is something that is in the eye of the beholder to experience and label.

I think also via your subject matter and non-didactic approach, you take that risk.

The biggest risk we took, I think, as a documentary is not having outside experts and the statistics and the things that give you this safe contextualization to say, "This is the box that I can put it in," and also, "This is the policy that we want to overturn; This is the 1-800 number to call," and then you don't have to have guilt. Or you don't have to feel weird. And you don't have to wonder, "What is my role?" or, "What can I do?" or, "How do I feel that this is going on in my country?" So we hoped people would be moved, and there are conversations and stuff we are doing with the film, we have our outreach and we have our statistics. That's part of the conversation around the film, and not in the film itself. I'm glad we did that, but it was risky.