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Too much? A movie gives us an inside view of poverty

The filmmakers' hearts are in their right places. But were their subjects' heads somewhere that they could make reasonable decisions about participating?

There is no doubt the filmmakers behind the documentary Rich Hill intended their movie to be a sympathetic portrait of three young men living life in the margins. Andrew, Appachey and Harley are all teenagers from the titular Missouri town, a less-than-bucolic and all-too familiar zone of strip malls, vacant downtown streets, grinding poverty and vanishing opportunities.

Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, the movie’s directors (and cousins), have their own family roots in the area, which made it easier to engage with their subjects and move about the town’s streets, backyards and homes. The result is a lovingly made and emotionally honest picture, pretty to look at and easy to like.

So why did the movie make me so uncomfortable? Why did I have the nagging feeling the filmmakers were exposing to the public the private miseries of people who perhaps didn’t understand their dysfunctions would be splashed across theater screens and streamed around the world? And I say that not because these people were ignorant, but because their burdens were simply too oppressive, too persistent, for them to give much thought to the artistic whims of a pair of documentary filmmakers.

The charge of exploitation is an easy one to lay on documentary directors. Their subjects rarely stand to benefit as much as the filmmakers do. But many professionals walk this line with care, and Tragos and Palermo are obviously sensitive to the issue.

They adopt an impressionistic approach to the three boys, capturing their daily lives and interactions among friends and family members with a drifting, sometimes dreamy camera. The visuals are textured with freight trains, fireworks, bake sales and other artifacts of rural Americana. The emotional palette of the movie is respectful, even tender. The characters may be inarticulate and not particularly interesting in any special way, but their musings on immediate needs and ordinary hopes are rendered as soulful, even important. This is all fine, on the surface, but it’s hard to ignore how screwed up these kids’ lives are.

Andrew, Appachey and Harley are each being smothered under a familial crush of poverty, crime, obesity, abuse and addiction. Their parents are either in prison or so lost in a swirl of their own abject emotional and physical problems they hardly seem capable of getting out of bed in the morning, let alone attending to the demands of their troubled kids.

Yet the filmmakers, in an effort to steer clear of moralizing, avoid grafting any sort of social “message” onto their film, any suggestion of how these boys could get help, or any larger picture of the endemic issues faced by the community as a whole. They are so determined not to pass judgment on these characters, not to invest their film with any irony (except for the obvious contradiction in the title) that they end up with a movie that, as observation, is over-mannered and, as character study, is undernourished.

What, exactly, are we supposed to take away from the movie? Rich Hill is cultivated to appeal to viewers who may never enter homes this littered and ramshackle, whose response to lives and conditions this desperate can only be pity. But the movie demands we not pity, or judge, or condemn. Consequently, I felt guilty for having all three of those responses.

The filmmakers' hearts are in the right place. Rich Hill reels in our sympathies by way of a studied restraint and a folk-lite guitar score, and by applying a poetic gloss on the devastation wrought by hardship and ignorance. But it seems to be making a case for the ennobling value of squalor.

(Note: Lest you think I’m criticizing this film from some perch of elite privilege, I grew up marginally poor in rural Pierce County, and I’ve watched extended family on my mother’s side struggle with lifelong health problems, sibling resentments, low self-esteem, unplanned pregnancies, crime, prison and, yes, even hoarding. Also, as documentary filmmakers, my wife and I have made dozens of short films for organizations working on the front lines of these chronic issues. Rarely do people agree to be interviewed unless they know the story they will tell will be used to help others or the organization that helped them.)

If you go: Rich Hill plays Aug. 15-17 at SIFF Film Center. Ticket information and details here.

This review previously appeared on the writer's blog, The Restless Critic

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 6:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately I have not seen Rich Hill, and unless it comes to Tacoma via The Grand Cinema, there is probably no way I will ever be able to see it. Yet it sounds as if it is a genuine work of art, both for its documentary value and for the veracity of the candid moments recorded by its filmmakers. Assuming this is true, it is an achievement that would surely be honored by critics just about anywhere else on this planet – especially in the cultural epicenters of New York, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg.

But here in the aesthetic backwater of Pugetopolis, Rich Hill is damned by critic Rustin Thompson for what he implies are serial intrusions born of what he belittles as “artistic whims.” The film's unflinching view of the inescapable poverty that now characterizes reality for half the U.S. population – a triumph of reportage that elsewhere would be lauded amongst the picture's greatest strengths – is the very quality that prompts Mr. Thompson to denounce it as “making a case for the ennobling value of squalor.”

Actually – again with the stipulation I have not seen the film – what Mr. Thompson seems to be expressing in his notably negative review is probably just another variant of what I have learned from bitter experience is our region's characteristic and often violent hostility toward social-documentary photographers and the images we produce.

The basis of this prejudice – I have encountered its like nowhere else in the United States (not even in the [allegedly] far-less-civilized South) – is no doubt the same provincial small-mindedness that defines how people born in Seattle and its environs relate to those of us from elsewhere. It seems the rampant xenophobia that underlies the Seattle Freeze – the well-documented antagonism to outsiders – readily expands into the spurious notion any un-posed photograph of the human condition is invariably a malicious invasion of the subject's privacy.

In its most extreme form – as a quietly fanatical dogma commonplace amongst the members of the local Ansel Adams cult – this patently reactionary rejection of social-documentary imagery is bolstered by a sneering conviction that photography of the human condition is nothing more than a waste of time and material – a medium with no artistic value whatsoever. In the eyes of these chillingly heartless elitists, human subjects and the struggles of oppressed peoples are reduced to meaninglessness in comparison to the grandeur of un-peopled nature.

Obviously Mr. Thompson does not go nearly so far in his rejection of Rich Hill. Indeed he admits “(t)he filmmakers' hearts are in the right place.” But – to me at least – his review nevertheless bears (and bares) an undeniable taint of Seattle's aesthetic toxicity.

There is also in his text the bias one would expect of a cinematographer who earns a living making propaganda films for charities: that is, he condemns Rich Hill for avoiding “any suggestion of how these boys could get help, or any larger picture of the endemic issues faced by the community as a whole.” In other words, there was no uplifting pitch at the end of the film – no pretense a viewer's contribution might make things better – to relieve the guilt and emotional depression evoked by the subjects' circumstances.

From my perspective, that notable lack of PollyAnna deception may underscore what might be Rich Hill's two most revealing truths: that as capitalism inevitably morphs into fascism, the poverty of its subjects is inescapable; and that our species' only hope lies in a revolutionary ideology no present-day U.S. theater would dare screen.

(DISCLOSURE: though most of my lifetime income came from writing and editing, it was photography that produced most of the fame-and-glory aspects of my resumé. My picture credits start with Paris-Match and Newsweek; I was the social documentarian for Manhattan's Beth Israel Hospital [1967-1970], for which I focused on the people and neighborhoods served by its free clinics; was the founding photographer [1974-1976] of The Seattle Sun; taught photography during the later '70s and early 1980s at Western Washington University's [Seattle] Center for Urban Studies and at Tacoma Community College; am officially retired but retain a working familiarity with film and cameras. A consummate street photographer during my Manhattan years [1965-1970; 1983-1986], my first few weeks in Seattle taught me that attempting street photography here is as dangerous as trying to photograph the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee.)

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Lorenbliss for 0pposing Rustin Thompson's nitpicking BS criticism of the Rich Hill film-if this doc opens up some people's minds & compassion about towns populated with residents (especially kids)that get "left behind in the forgotten dust" it's achieved a very worthwhile task of leaving this mark on our American conscience & humanity. Awareness of the grind of American poverty is at least a step in a direction of easing the crush of it all.Lastly I live near many struggling, desperate small towns in Iowa & Missouri & Illinois & these stories NEED to be told!

iahawk77

Posted Sun, Aug 17, 5:21 p.m. Inappropriate

"inescapable poverty that now characterizes reality for half the U.S. population "

Half the population? Lordy, and you wonder why no one takes the looney fear left seriously.

Simon

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