‘Hillbilly’ film draws full house in Reynolds Hall
SHEPHERDSTOWN – Sally Rubin may have grown up in Boston, Massachusetts, but she was always curious about her mother’s family history in Appalachia. So when she began her career in filmmaking, she chose to embrace her family history and create films about Appalachian subjects. Rubin’s most recent documentary, a collaboration with West Virginia native Ashley York, was finished in 2016, and has since been touring the United States.
On Feb. 21, “Hillbilly” came to Reynolds Hall for a showing and question and answer session with Rubin.
“This was my first time showing the film in this part of Appalachia, and it’s an honor to be here,” Rubin said, mentioning the documentary often draws a mix of reactions from viewers. However, she said she was pleased with how her standing-room-only Shepherdstown audience interacted with the film, because “You didn’t scream, you didn’t boo.”
As the filmmaker who never appeared on the film screen, Rubin’s focus was on developing the story, a topic which she discussed in-depth for the audience.
“I always like to talk about story development,” Rubin said. “We just wanted to make a movie about the media stereotypes of hillbillies, and the development of those stereotypes over time. We thrusted together what were kind of four different movies, in one movie.”
Although Rubin said all of those themes made the documentary development a challenging process, she explained she believed it was necessary to do the documentary subject justice.
“This film kind of evolved. The movie was almost done when we added Ashley into the movie for narration,” Rubin said of York. “We were writing the script for her narration until the last minute.”
According to Rubin, the film was an opportunity for her to help reclaim the term “hillbilly” from the negative term often aligned with it.
“I learned long ago, that no one can tell any other disadvantaged group how to be,” Rubin said, mentioning the film also focused on the often-overlooked African American and LGBTQ communities in Appalachia, along with discussing how the ideas about coal mining and hillbillies discussed in the 2016 political campaigns, resulted in the Republican candidate gaining voters who would normally have voted for the Democratic candidate – or not voted at all.
While Rubin found many of her contacts for the documentary through her 10 years of documentary work experience in Appalachia, she said the featured political campaign contacts hit close to home for York. York interviewed her grandmother and two other relatives, who all voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, because of his pro-coal mining rhetoric. The goal behind showing this footage, according to Rubin, was to emphasize the need for people to listen to each other, to accomplish progress.
“Ashley bites her tongue in the film, showing how important listening is,” Rubin said, mentioning a showing of the film in Los Angeles, California, resulted in an emotional response from the audience. “People were crying, understanding what happens when we don’t listen to each other.”
For Charles Town resident Abigail Beavin, the film may have not elicited an emotional response, but it did give her some ideas to ponder.
“It’s definitely food for thought. A lot of 2016 re-traumatizing,” Beavin said, as she bought a book about Appalachia from a Four Seasons Books display at the event.