Pike County native comes home to make “hillbilly” documentary
Born and raised in Pike County and now based in Los Angeles as a filmmaker and teacher, Ashley York saw she had a unique perspective on media portrayals of Appalachia and set out to make a film about that.
It had all of the usual suspects — clips from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Deliverance” and, for good 21st century measure, MTV’s “Buckwild” — and media experts to comment. But as production went on, she and co-director Sally Rubin realized, “we had a big blind spot,” York said.
“You can talk all day long about stereotypes, but at some point, you have to show what Appalachia is really like, who really lives there.”
So, York brought the film back home, setting out in the Summer of 2016 to work with young filmmakers at Whitesburg’s Appalshop media center, visiting with the Lexington-based Affrilachian Poets, author Silas House and students at Berea College, and even spending time with her own family that still resides in Appalachia 20 years after York left to study at the University of Kentucky.
The thing they didn’t count on was the 2016 presidential election, and Donald Trump winning the White House with widespread support in Appalachia.
“We never intended the election to be a part of the movie,” said York, a Herald-Leader intern in 2001. “Then Donald Trump started to become so popular, and we started talking to people about that.”
The resulting film, “hillbilly,” has been winding its way around the country on the festival and workshop circuit for several months, and York brings it to Eastern Kentucky University’s EKU Center for the Arts Monday night.
Since it started screening, the film has earned wide praise from a variety of viewers, including one of the major stars shown in the film.
“I’m happy to see somebody trying to cover us as we really are and not what some people think we are,” country music icon Dolly Parton says in a promotional quote for the movie. “It’s wonderful the attention you’ve paid to so many areas that are so important to all of us. I’m proud to have been mentioned in the film a time or two.“
The Tennessee native, like her Kentucky contemporary Loretta Lynn, is shown as a woman who has been able to succeed in mainstream American culture while retaining her Appalachian identity. But for the most part, in modern American culture, being from the mountains, a hillbilly, has been a liability, the movie asserts — with lots of evidence.
That includes decades-old news footage when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” and cameras descended on Eastern Kentucky and adjacent areas to show what was being fought, often from the vantage point of moving cars. The cameras came back in 2016 as Appalachia became known as the heart of Trump country, once again offering unflattering portrayals of people cheering the soon-to-be president.
For a more personal perspective, which some of York’s colleagues at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts say the film needed, York took the cameras into her own family’s homes, showing a moment where she is somewhat aghast to learn a number of her relatives support Trump and they are equally stunned to learn she supports his democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
The film explores the reasons behind their and other residents’ support for Trump, rooted in the perception that Clinton was an enemy of coal and people from rural areas — due in no small part to some of her comments — and a desire to “shake things up” after decades of broken promises from politicians.
But it also shows other groups in Appalachia, such as young artists, women anxious to see the first female president, black populations including Berea College-based author bell hooks House and his husband, Jason Howard, and musician Sam Gleaves, whose music has addressed being gay in Eastern Kentucky.
“We wanted to bring voice to people who were not usually part of the national narrative about Appalachia,” York said.
One of the more poignant moments of the movie is a visit with Billy Redden, the actor who played the backwoods mountain boy who played in the iconic “dueling banjos” scene in “Deliverance.” He’s shown working at a Walmart and saying he didn’t realize the image of Appalachia the film was creating when he made it, at age 10.
“I want this movie to expand understanding of rural and Appalachian people,” York says. “There are so many more people and stories than what we usually see.”
IF YOU GO
What: Special screening for the EKU Chautauqua Lectures
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 29
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Dr., Richmond