Volume 14, 2008

Intergenerational Collaboration at Appalshop

Ginger Moored


On the Dance Floor
In the Auditorium
In the Theater
About the Author

On the Dance Floor

I’m on the dance floor at Carter Fold – the Carter family home in southwestern Virginia that is now a mountain music mecca – and it seems like everyone on this side of Pine Mountain is here. The woman next to me – she looks like she’s in her 70s or so – has gathered a group of twenty-somethings and is teaching them the “bird dance”.  Behind me is a teenager who has added karate kicks to his flat footin’ moves.  I’m showing a sixth-grader, who has just moved to the area from Warrenton, how to stomp to the beat. 

The intergenerational relationships found on Appalachian dance floors extend well beyond our concert halls.  At Appalshop, the arts and cultural organization where I work  in eastern Kentucky, intergenerational relationships are what sustain our organization.  Just ask Machlyn Blair. 

Mach, 19, is a former student of the Appalachian Media Institute, Appalshop’s youth media training program.  When Mach joined AMI in 2003 he was losing interest in school; he thought peers and teachers were not listening to his ideas.  Plus, he didn’t see the point in going to school since local jobs were (and still are) practically limited to mining and working at Wal-mart.  In a county where only 77% of youth graduate from high school and less than 8% of residents have a college degree, Mach’s feelings were hardly unique. Eventually, he stopped going to school altogether.

At AMI, though, it was different.  “What I really enjoyed about [AMI] is that…I wasn’t treated like a child,” Mach explains.  Instead, he was treated as a colleague by filmmakers such as Herb E. (“Herbie”) Smith, who was one of the local youth who founded Appalshop in 1969.  Today, Appalshop has grown to be a collective of 30 media artists whose work focuses on the traditions of Appalachia and the socio-economic, political, and environmental issues that affect the region’s communities.  In its 36 years of operation, Appalshop has created the largest single body of work about Appalachia through its film and video, radio, and theater wings.  Meanwhile, Herbie has become a nationally-recognized filmmaker, producing documentaries such as “The Ralph Stanley Story”.  

Eating his famous collard greens at an Appalshop pot luck dinner, Herbie tells me about how his high school discouraged him from going away to college.  “I talked to my guidance counselor about applying to Vanderbilt and she said that we mountain kids wouldn’t be able to keep up at a school like that.”   Herbie ignored this advice and graduated from Vanderbilt with a B.S. in mathematics.  After college, he returned to eastern Kentucky and became an important voice for the region; sharing through documentary film new stories about the Appalachian experience.  Because Herbie and Mach share similar backgrounds and both want to have their ideas taken seriously, Mach considers Herbie a role model.  “When I get older, I hope I end up like Herbie,” says Mach.  

Mach says that Herbie taught him how to use lighting in films – how to soften the light, create larger shadows, use overhead lights – and that he would watch cuts of his films and offer advice.  “But the part I remember most”, Mach ecstatically tells me, “was when Herbie watched my film Banjo Pickin’ Girl.  After the screening Herbie said he really liked the lighting in the film.  Then he turned to me and said, ‘How’d you do that?’  I thought that was really cool.”  Affirming Herbie’s skills as a film critic, the LocoMotion film festival awarded Banjo Pickin’ Girl with the “Best Documentary” award in 2005.

I ask Mach and T.J., a high school senior who’s a current AMI intern, what other Appalshop filmmakers have impacted their lives.  They both agree: “Definitely Robert,” they say, referring to a 31 year-old filmmaker who started working at Appalshop as Herbie’s apprentice nine years ago.  T.J. explains that Robert doesn’t teach filmmaking by using a bunch of technical jargon; instead, Robert “puts it in conversation form.” 

“After working with Robert, I can just sit down and have a conversation with adults,” T.J. tells me.  “Before, I just went by the interview questions.  I would talk to them, the adults, but I wouldn’t engage in intelligent conversation.  Now I don’t feel like adults are better than me.”

In the Auditorium

Inside the mostly-dark auditorium, overhead lights illuminate three other AMI interns: Rachel, Amber, and Jessica.  They are sitting on the edge of the stage, legs dangling.  In front of them on the red-cushioned theater chairs sit Rebecca, AMI’s director, and Mimi, a filmmaker who’s been at Appalshop for over 30 years.  The three young women just finished a short documentary on water quality and now Mimi and Rebecca are flipping through the three students’ seven-page proposal to do a documentary on teenage pregnancy. 

Something’s different.  Usually Rebecca is engaged in a sarcastic banter with the AMI youth, trying to outwit them.  But today Rebecca and Mimi are serious. 

“Your shot list looks great, your storyline looks good…”, Mimi scans the proposal, “And who are you going to interview?”  There’s the young woman in Amber’s class who recently found out she was pregnant; Rachel’s friend who just had a baby and has one more year of high school; and a recent graduate of the county high school who is expecting soon.

“Have you considered interviewing any women who had babies as teens but are now older?” says Mimi.  Rachel, Amber, and Jessica shake their heads no but say this is an excellent idea.  Rebecca adds, “Well, I’m glad you all are addressing something that adults won’t even talk about.  Check out some of the interview ideas Mimi gave you and then we’ll review your revised proposal.  Good work you guys.”

I wonder why Rachel, Amber, and Jessica – and all the other AMI interns – aren’t intimidated by a veteran filmmaker who’s older than their parents.  Apparently, others wonder the same thing.

“How do you get your students to take the guests you bring in seriously?  How do you get them motivated to talk to community leaders who don’t normally consult with youth?”  “Oh, that’s easy,” Rebecca says to the teacher in her “media-in-the-classroom” workshop.  “I just tell them that the mayor is coming in 3 hours and wants to know what their plan is to reduce teen drug abuse.”  The teachers laugh; I’m not sure if they believe her or not.  But I know she’s not joking.

The thing is, the AMI interns actually have begun a dialogue with their community about how to reduce teen drug abuse.  But instead of a typed outline with bullet-points, this plan is based on two films made by AMI interns.  It began last spring when a group of 12 local high school students participated in AMI’s Media Lab, an after-school program where youth learn the video production process and then make a documentary film about their community.  The Media Lab curriculum started with Robert, Herbie, Mimi and other Appalshop filmmakers teaching the interns the basics of film: lighting, sound, recording, interviewing, editing.  To see how these components fit together in a film, the students then watched Robert’s film Sludge and Anne Lewis’ and Mimi’s Fast Food Women, among other Appalshop documentaries.  “After watching their work I realized how good the Appalshop filmmakers are, but I also realized that if I work hard at it I can do as good as they can,” says Mach.  “Plus,” he adds, “people think that we’re all like the Beverly Hillbillies or people from Deliverance, that we’re stupid, we’re all poor, and we wear overalls and no shoes.  That’s what they think, but it’s not completely true.  The Appalshop movies show what’s actually here and not what people think is here.”   

Then came the real work: creating their own documentary films.  The youth decided to focus their films on prescription drug abuse.  “We knew this issue was a big problem,” Mach explains.  “We all knew people who were on prescription drugs…our friends and family members.  People we know and love and care about were dying.” 

The AMI interns worked in two groups, one that made a film about the connection between the lack of activities for youth and drug use, and another whose film explored how families are affected when a family member has a drug addiction.  Addressing big issues like these was not easy, so the youth producers worked with the mostly-adult community partners UNITE, an anti-drug community-based organization, and the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens’ justice coalition.  Through UNITE and KFTC the youth set up interviews with former drug addicts, the head of the local Narcotics Anonymous, a psychiatrist, and an Emergency Medical Technician, to name a few.  The youth even interviewed their grandparents to understand how their communities had changed from thriving towns with theaters and recreation centers to rows of empty buildings displaying “For Sale” signs.

The culmination of this work was a screening of the films at Appalshop’s Seedtime mountain music and cultural festival, held every June.  These films, titled “Can You Handle the Truth?” and “Living with Prescription Drugs”, were the most well-attended screenings of the entire festival—quite an accomplishment considering most of the festival’s films were made by filmmakers who had worked in the industry for decades.  To discuss the films, UNITE set up a panel, which included Mach, an AMI intern named Autumn, and the judge executive of the county.  By the end of the discussion people were talking about everything from creating a youth recreation center to building a drug rehabilitation center.

But that wasn’t the end of the films’ fifteen minutes of fame. Both the adults of the UNITE coalition and the youth from AMI wanted to make an impact on teen drug abuse.  The AMI interns noticed that the prevention curriculum used at their school didn’t get any attention or respect from their friends.  Working with the UNITE coalition the AMI interns are helping to get a new curriculum into their school district, one that really engages teenagers and talks about the problem frankly.  The new curriculum will include the video “Living with Prescription Drugs,” a discussion guide that UNITE is developing with the local public health department, and a series of discussions led by the AMI interns in elementary , middle school, and high school classrooms.   The UNITE coalition is providing access and funds – talking to administrators and teachers about implementing the new curriculum and underwriting its printing and distribution.  The AMI youth are providing a different kind of access and understanding, which will ensure that the new curriculum is one that really engages other young people.

 Of this collaboration Mach comments, "If it was just adults I would have worried that they would try to figure out what the kids want to do but they wouldn't have gotten the kids' input.  Lots of times [adults] think they know what kids want but they don't."  Mach pauses, then says, "This is something we have to solve as a community.”

 In the Theater

Tonight, Rachel, Amber, and Jessica are presenting their film on teenage pregnancy to an audience of about 150 people crammed into the Appalshop theater.  Some of the people I recognize: there’s Madeline, the head of UNITE in Letcher County and Herbie’s here with his wife and teenage daughter Ada.  In the upper-right section of the theater sit a group of teenage boys, sporting long hair and black t-shirts.  Up front I see two women in their 30s sitting next to an elderly couple.  Several stragglers stand up in the back near the door.   

In addition to the teen pregnancy film, two other groups of AMI interns are showing their films tonight.  One of the films is titled “Human Canvas” and is about the link between tattoos and spirituality; the other is “Zero Tolerance”.  All three are excellent films, but tonight “Zero Tolerance” is the real crowd-pleaser.

“Adults get to make all the assumptions and all the rules that teenagers have to abide by,” says Tommy, who appears on the screen after the white lettering of the title “Zero Tolerance” fades. “Zero Tolerance” explains that Tommy was recently kicked out of school.  The reason?  Tommy hung up posters in his school announcing that he was starting an alternative newspaper.  The administration of his school deemed the posters “terroristic”.  What really makes “Zero Tolerance” exciting is that Tommy is not only the protagonist of the film, he’s also the filmmaker, along with two other of his AMI peers.

The lights flash on and the eight AMI interns are seated on the stage in folding chairs.  They sit straight and are dressed like I’ve never seen them before: in slacks and skirts and button-down shirts.  The three films have been screened and now it’s time for Q&A. 

“How many posters did you put up?” a middle-aged man asks Tommy.  Another woman wants to know how being labeled a terrorist changed Tommy’s view of his community.  But most of all, everyone wants to know: What are you going to do about this?

Maybe the ACLU should get involved … Parents should voice their concerns to school board members … School officials should mandate free expression in schools.  These are all ideas exchanged between the AMI youth onstage and the audience members in their theater seats.

In a way, Tommy’s been granted his wish: tonight, it’s not only the adults that set the agenda but also Tommy and T.J. and Amber.  It’s Herbie and Madeline.  It’s the elderly man in the grey suit, second row; the young mother with her two-year-old in her lap.  It’s all of us.  Here, we all make the rules together. 


Excerpts of this article previously appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Community Works Journal . For more information on the Journal and the original article please contact Community Works Journal, PO Box 2251, South Burlington, VT 05407 Tel: 802-655-5918 •

About the Author

From 2006 - 2007 Ginger Moored served as the External Relations Coordinator of Appalshop's Appalachian Media Institute.  She is currently a Capital City Fellow working for the District of Columbia's City Administrator.  She can be reached at