Wednesday night’s screening of the 2000 documentary “Stranger With a Camera” at WKU and the subsequent question-and-answer session with the film’s creator, Elizabeth Barret, touched on a host of issues near and dear to how we in the media approach this profession.
Barret said the documentary used the story of the 1967 murder of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O’Connor while he was filming a shack in Letcher County as a jumping-off point to discuss further the obligations that filmmaker, or journalists in general, have toward depicting the subjects they cover.
Included in the documentary alongside interviews with subjects close to Hobart Ison’s shooting of O’Connor were reams of archival footage of eastern Kentucky shot by filmmakers and TV news crews in the 1960s (including most of a 1964 piece by Charles Kuralt, the late CBS News reporter famous for his “On The Road” series)
Much of this footage shows subjects who were especially sensitive about how the fact of their poverty would come off in the national spotlight.
I’ve lost count of how many times people I have interviewed for various stories have told me to make them sound good. I realize where they’re coming from; they are opening themselves up in a rather public forum by speaking to me and expressing an understandable concern. My approach, though, has been the same from the beginning – the best way that I can portray the people I cover and interview is to present them to the public as similarly as they presented themselves to me.
This is a similar challenge that Barret said she faces in her work, though her challenge is arguably enhanced since she works in visual media, with images that are more likely to persist past the initial viewing.
I spoke with Barret briefly after the screening, talking with her about how much the media landscape has changed since the 1960s, when it seemed Appalachia was inundated with TV news reporters, filmmakers and politicians trying to understand and document the plight of the poor coal miners of eastern Kentucky.
Since then, of course, our culture of information has accelerated greatly; there are so many more outlets to receive and disseminate information with the advent of cable TV news, and the many online file-sharing communities have fostered more connections among people to the outside world at large.
Really, with the Internet at one’s disposal, anyone could conceivably become a documentarian and obtain an audience.
I asked Barret if she approached her work from that perspective, as though her presentation of the people and region she films is in competition with who knows how many other presentations.
She said she did, which is not surprising given the thoughtful approach to the people she interviewed in the film. Barret added that the proliferation of more media in the past several years has its benefits and drawbacks.
It’s beneficial in the way in which more people are able to report and document honestly the conditions of a place and time and are able to present that to a broad audience.
Of course, one of the main drawbacks is one that has seemed to plague Appalachia since the dawn of news reporting: the underlying fear that no matter what, the people of rural eastern Kentucky will be presented as gun-toting, overall-wearing rubes and objects of ridicule to a laughing public.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” went off the air in 1971, but that image of a simple mountain family thrust into what some may condescendingly call “modern civilization” persists. Most people know what I mean when I talk about Jed Clampett going from shootin’ at some food to making sense of his new “cement pond.”
In fact, Barret said the new media landscape opened up the possibility of what she termed one of the most cynical attempts to present rural America to the public — The Real Beverly Hillbillies.
This attempt to throw a real-life rural family into affluence was stopped from airing thanks in large part to a campaign of several individuals and groups acting on behalf of rural America.
That in itself may be the most significant indicator of our present media landscape — eastern Kentuckians and other rural folks who are wary of being dogged by the spotlight now have people acting in their interest in ways that they didn’t when camera crews in the 1960s first arrived in the region to ensure fair treatment.