“People don’t knock on their doors too much,” says Tracy Droz Tragos of the subjects of “Rich Hill,” a film that takes its title from a town of just over a thousand people in Missouri, 70 miles from Kansas City and even further away from prosperity. It was where Tragos spent her summers growing up, a quiet respite from her home in Oakland, California, and after taking a break from filmmaking following the 2003 documentary “Be Good, Smile Pretty” to raise her own children, it was where she decided to return to make a film that illuminated the simplicity of life she found to be beautiful in the region while investigating the effects that generations of diminishing economic returns have had on the community by following three of its younger members.
With her cousin — Andrew Droz Palermo, the talented cinematographer behind “A Teacher” and “You’re Next” whose mother grew up in Rich Hill – onhand to co-direct, Tragos utilized her recently acquired maternal instincts to draw out Apachey, Harley and Andrew, the trio of teenage boys who are separately heading toward an uncertain future after being dealt an unfair hand at birth. All seem resigned to a life of limited means, though each handles it far differently – Andrew, the most well-adjusted of the group has a solid family life, though the ground keeps shifting beneath his feet as his father looks for work in one small town after another, while the short-tempered Harley and Apachey, who suspects he suffers from bipolar disorder and Asbergers, have had to grow up fast without any father figure around.
Shortly before the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film opened theatrically in limited release, Droz Tragos spoke about why she wanted to focus on the young, returning to filmmaking after nearly a decade away and what it’s been like to expose Rich Hill to the rest of the world.
Since you took a break after your last film, “Be Good, Smile Pretty” in 2003, documentary films have leaned more towards a more experiential style as is found in “Rich Hill.” Because I suspect your cousin and co-director Andrew has taken that approach in his films recently, was that something that took some adjusting for you?
It was a very different approach, but one that we talked about early on wanting to take. I was really excited about it. Andrew comes from a cinematography background and has this beautiful visual language that was part of the beauty of our collaboration. “Be Good, Smile Pretty” came about from such a personal place and was such an immediate thing that you’d just pick up any kind of camera that was available and the visuals took a backseat to what was going on. This was going to be different. It really was our intention to have this be a cinematic experience, which I was really excited about.
Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful film and yet you’re reflecting on this impoverished place. Is that a fine line to walk as a filmmaker?
Yeah, it is a fine line. We knew that we wanted to do something different from films that felt exploitive…actually, it’s not film. It’s primarily television where you get in and get out, and the images don’t linger on [with] the kind of humanity and the emotions and the deeper story of what’s going on there. We wanted folks to have moments to meditate, contemplate, and think about the small moments and notice the small details and hand gestures. I’m really excited that we took some of the risks we that we took and we took them knowingly. We didn’t just stumble upon this film. We were very intentional and we said we’re going to do something different. We’re not going to have statistics and we’re not going to have outside experts. We’re going to have this really be an experience where we take people to this place and have these kids be the authors of their story. You walk a mile in their shoes a little bit and we knew that it would be a little bit of a risk in a way.
How did you decide that it would be kids that you would be following?
Originally, we didn’t know that. We knew that we wanted to step inside the homes of the places that we’d seen, the families that we knew were struggling, the ones that had the tarps on the roof and broken windows. We wanted to get inside there, but we didn’t know we would be so welcomed. It’s humbling and an honor that we were so trusted. Then at a certain point, we met the boys in different ways — we met Apachey at school and had a conversation with him after gym class, we met Andrew in the park and then went home with him, and we met Harley when we were talking to somebody else in his family and he was asleep on the couch. Once we met these kids, it clicked that, yes, we could tell the story from their perspective. We could get you into their heads a little bit and it would be harder to dismiss because they were kids. It would be harder to say it was their fault that they were having the challenges that they were having or they had some inferior moral compass or they were living off the system, because that’s often the way families like the ones in our film are dismissed. They are reduced often to statistics.
We wanted to do something that gave them a voice and this feeling of intimacy, so that you had a sense of the real human beings, then the statistics and that type of thing can come out in the conversation around the film. We hoped that the empathy that people would feel towards the kids — the connection that they would feel — would then extend by the end of the film to the parents as well.
Since you had spent time in Rich Hill in your youth, was it difficult to reconcile the past you knew with what’s going on now?
Yes and no. I still find a lot in the community and the town that I love. There’s the smells and the beauty just of rural America and some of the patriotism and the small town [quality] of everybody knowing each other. But it is deeply sad that there are so many people that are struggling and don’t have jobs. They’ll have their car break down and they don’t have money for gas. I think I never fully appreciated what that would feel like until making this film, how isolating that can be and how alone and unseen. That was part of the surprise in how welcomed we were in these homes, the fact that they really were appreciative that somebody was knocking on their door. Here we were. “Come in. Somebody wants to talk to me and hear what I’ve got going on?” I was honored that we were welcomed in and that we got to bear witness.
In a literal way, the film occasionally keeps its distance at time to take in the kids in their surroundings while at others, it will follow the kids and have the intimacy of a fly on the wall. Were there a lot of conscious choices about perspective in that sense?
There definitely were. We were much more involved than what is in the film. We were talking with Harley about not walking out [of school, risking expulsion], for example, or we were talking to Apachey about quitting smoking. We didn’t want to do that with this and we didn’t want to have it be about us and it be about our coming to town. In part, I’d made a film that I was very much in and was very much about me [with “Be Good, Smile Pretty”], and I wanted to do a film that I wasn’t in and it wasn’t about me. This was really about these families and it was their story. We broke the fourth wall at the very end obviously, and to get to some of those moments, there was a lot of talking and there was a lot of involvement, but that didn’t necessarily have to make it in the film. Ultimately, it was our choice not to have it be a part of the film.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It’s particularly amazing to share it with the families in the film and to be at screenings with them where they’re embraced and have this feeling of belonging and connection. I don’t think we ever could have imagined the reach that this would have. I’ve gone to Melbourne, Australia, Toronto, and Paris, and it’s amazing that people all around the world get to come into these homes in this small tiny town in Southwest Missouri and think about them. That’s pretty special.
“Rich Hill” opens on August 1st at the Village East in New York, in Los Angeles on August 15th at the Laemmle NoHo 7 and throughout the country in the weeks that follow. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It will be available on iTunes and VOD on August 5th.