Intergenerational Collaboration at Appalshop
On the Dance Floor
In the Theater
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 intergenerational relationships found on
Appalachian dance floors extend well beyond our concert halls.
At Appalshop, the arts and cultural organization where I work
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.”
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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 •
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