Tuesday, January 25, 2000
Kentucky filmmaker tells 'difficult' story
BY MARGARET McGURK
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PARK CITY, Utah So far, 2000 is turning out to be a terrific year for Elizabeth Barret. Her documentary Stranger With A Camera is screening in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up by the distinguished P.O.V series for broadcast on public television stations nationwide.
She arrived at the festival with cinematographer Peter Pearce, associate editor Marta Wohl and executive producer Dee Davis from Appalshop, the media arts center in Whitesburg, Ky. That Eastern Kentucky city is Ms. Barret's professional home and the place where the movie was born and bred.
For them, the festival caps eight grueling years of shooting, editing and fund-raising.
It was a hard film to make and a difficult story to tell, Ms. Barret said.
The movie recounts the 1967 murder of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor, who had just finished shooting footage of a coal miner and his daughter. The assailant was the miner's landlord, Hobart Ison.
At the time, the War on Poverty had brought a deluge of attention to the poorest parts of Appalachia, and many local residents sympathized with the land owner, who served one year in prison.
Ms. Barret who grew up in a comfortable, middle-class area in a neighboring county, became interested in telling the story after she discovered Appalshop upon her graduation from the University of Kentucky.
Now an independent non-profit center, Appalshop was itself born as a War on Poverty program, founded to put tools of the media into the hands of people otherwise far removed from the modern information industry.
Ms. Barret had developed an enthusiasm for documentaries while at UK; she landed a spot on a National Endowment for the Humanities program. You didn't have to know anything about filmmaking, she remembered, you just had to be from the area.
A new way of thinking
In film, she found a new way of thinking about the world.
The idea that you could possibly work on some feature, or that you could make your own movies, that wasn't even an option.
We were really doing a very different thing, of learning about our pace while we documented it. It became a look at our culture and the people who live here.
It was not just work. It was your life and your work.
The 1967 murder was often mentioned in the early days at Appalshop, she said. We were all aware of it as trainees, as filmmakers and videomakers. We were reminded of it by all kinds of people all the time. ... It was a cautionary tale that was told to us as young filmmakers, she said.
The issue that all of us as documentary makers deal with was all encompassed in this encounter. ... There is always this power differential between the person with the tape recorder or the camera and the person who is the subject. ... It isn't always exploitive, but there can be unintended consequences from your actions as a filmmaker.
Among the toughest challenges on Stranger With A Camera was persuading her Kentucky neighbors to talk openly about an incident that inspired sharp disagreements and complex feelings of shame, anger, resentment, guilt and pride of place.
It was a story that people knew but it wasn't necessarily a story that people wanted to talk about, she said. It took a while for people to sort of see some of the footage I shot and see what the film was about.
"I'm the storyteller'
As she won the trust of her neighbors, Ms. Barret found she was also probing deeply into her own ideas about filmmaking.
I began to see (the story) had a relevance. It was really dead center to what I was doing in documentaries, and for this whole collective. That's the whole reason I ended up placing myself in the film, which I had never done before. I'm the guide and the storyteller.
I have a dual identity in the film; as a filmmaker, I identify with Hugh O'Connor and with the Appalachian people. This paradox is always there. You have a very different role as a community-based filmmaker.
Without Appalshop as a home base, it would have been all but impossible for Ms. Barret and her collaborators to make the film, she said. She also turned to colleagues in Ohio filmmakers Jim Klein, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, all of Yellow Springs, helped edit Stranger With A Camera.
Though in time the film received funding from such high-brow arts patrons as the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Warhol Foundation, the Soros Documentary Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation, Ms. Barret and her colleagues slogged through some hard times scraping together money to make the film.
She is particularly grateful for some of the earliest grants from the Kentucky Humanities Council and Kentucky Arts Council. Even at the toughest times, though, Ms. Barret said she and her team never seriously considered quitting.
"What kept me going on this film? ... I really cared a lot about this story and the people involved. ... It was all about how to do it justice and not taking a lot of short cuts. I knew this one really needed to be well done, and it was going to take a big investment of time and energy and money and I was totally committed to finishing it.
Once you sign on to one of these projects, seeing it through to the end is just part of the job.
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