Filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo

Rich Hill won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and plenty of critical acclaim — Katie Walsh of Indiewire called it “a truly moving and edifying film…the type of media object that could and should be put in a time capsule for future generations”— but co-directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo didn’t make it for the award hardware. The filmmakers, who are cousins, came back to the namesake western Missouri town in which their family has a long history, to capture a sobering look at what the American Dream means today through the eyes of three young men and their working poor families. The film premieres January 5 at 10pm [check local listings] on PBS.

We caught up with both Tracy and Andrew to get their thoughts on making this intimate film and getting it out to the world.

What led you to come back to Rich Hill to make the film?

Tracy: I made my first documentary Be Good Smile Pretty [Independent Lens, 2003] after discovering a picture of my father the day he was killed in Vietnam. The film was well received and won the Emmy Award for Best Documentary in 2004. It was difficult to find another film project with such a deep connection, and then came motherhood. I wanted to give my daughters a different childhood than I had had — with a mom who was fully present. That was my choice then, but sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been healthier for all of us if I’d made a different choice — to continue making films. It’s a hard, hard balance. Motherhood is deeply rewarding; but it can also be very isolating and frustrating. I didn’t live in a community with a lot of child-care supports. I longed to engage on another level — and use a different part of my brain.

When my second daughter started nursery school, I knew it was time for me to go back to filmmaking. I began developing several projects, but it wasn’t until my first cousin Andrew and I hatched a plan to collaborate that a project really took off.

Rich Hill is where my father grew up. As a child, I spent every summer and winter break there. Like many other struggling rural towns across America, the conditions have become increasingly bleak. Rich Hill has a sizable jobless population, starving local businesses and many vulnerable families. Yet, despite the grief that Andrew and I felt around its current circumstances, it was still a place of belonging and connection for us. We wanted to understand what it was really like to live in this mined-out coal town.

We filmed everything. Then, we rode on the school bus, and went home with kids. We were invited inside, welcomed by families who were eager to share their stories, but also surprised because no one had ever before taken such interest. We witnessed up close their challenging and often dire conditions and their deep bonds with each other.

The children were still young enough to have optimism; the adults’ expectations were, for the most part, much lower. Everyone was in survival mode. And no matter what the age, they yearned for self-worth. With so few resources, they got by on little more than instinct and familial love. As a mother, I couldn’t turn away. This would be more than a personal story about a particular place — this would be about families in towns across America, who were isolated and, in large part, ignored. We had found our film. I also found that as a mother, I had an empathy with our subjects, both kids and parents.

Appachey, in Rich Hill
Appachey, in Rich Hill

Do you think there’s any hope for Rich Hill (or the many towns like it) to come back, to reinvent themselves economically? (I’m reminded also of the titular town featured in the IL doc Medora.)  

Andrew: I truly hope so. I’d hate to see all the small towns totally disappear from the map; I think there would be something lost from the fabric of America. But much of the industry has left Rich Hill, and many of the folks fortunate enough to be employed are forced to commute to bigger towns and cities for their jobs. On top of that, very few of the most promising students return after college, so the population continues to dwindle. However, I’m reminded of one of our cousins, Jeff Droz, who has made it sort of an unspoken mission of his to stay in the Rich Hill area, and really try to make it better. He’s active in the community, and is helping usher in a green movement with his solar panel business. People like him give me hope for small towns.

Tracy: Absolutely, I think there’s hope for communities like Rich Hill.  It takes thinking and investing locally, in things like after school programs for kids and resources for families that are struggling. Unfortunately, it may mean hard choices for folks — like paying to improve the roads, and improving the city infrastructure that might attract new businesses and jobs.  It really is all about mentorship, education, and jobs, and there are just so few in Rich Hill.  Unless you have transportation and the money for gas, you’re stuck, so these resources need to be local.

Are you still in touch with the kids and their families featured in the film? Any updates on their lives since the filming stopped?

Tracy: Yes, I talk to them all regularly. I feel strongly that I have a moral obligation to be touch with them — both to have them share in the film’s engagement and impact, and also to enjoy its success. I also have developed a friendship and bond with the families, and they know that they can call on me any time they need support or just to talk. They are a part of my life for the long haul, and my life is richer for it.

The families all traveled a lot with me on the road with the film; one of the best trips was to Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, where we won the Founder’s Prize for best film. I also start out by asking them if they’d prefer to have the money in their pocket (vs. the expense of plane tickets and hotel rooms) — and they’d always rather have the experience. It means the world to share the film and their lives directly with audiences and to have the sense of belonging and being heard.

Here are specific updates on the kids, and a site we’ve set up to support them directly:

It has now been a year since Andrew lost his mother, Elizabeth, just days before the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Still, Andrew and his sister Alyssa finished the 9th grade in Stratton, Colorado, in June with strong grades. Andrew spent much of the summer in Montana with his cousins working on a ranch. This fall, he started the 10th grade in a new Montana school. This winter, he is planning to follow his father and his sister back to Rich Hill to live with family. He is currently living on his own in a trailer until the semester finishes, having saved enough with after school jobs to buy a $300 vehicle. Andrew turned 16 in October and when asked for an update, he says, “I still put my pants on one leg at a time.”

Harley with his grandmother
Harley with his grandmother

Harley is 17 and no longer in school, having dropped out in the 10th grade. In 2014, Harley struggled with serious health problems as, this spring, an MRI revealed a brain tumor wrapped around his optic nerve. His Grandma Betty took him for several visits with doctors in both Kansas City and St. Louis. She had to miss so much work as a home health care aid, she was ultimately laid off. For now, his condition is stable. Donna, the Bates County Victim’s Rights Advocate from the prosecutor’s office, saw the film and arranged for Harley to see his mother, Joann, for the first time in several years. Harley wears his mother’s hairband around his wrist in memory of that visit. Joann is still incarcerated with an anticipated release date of November, 2017. Grandma Betty speaks about how the film has been good for the boys because for the first time in their lives, “They feel like they belong.”

Appachey turned 13 last January and celebrated the occasion at the Sundance Film Festival 2014, and is about to turn 14. Appachey’s mom, Delena, is one of the film’s strongest supporters. She exposed so much of herself in the film, which she describes as having happened at a very stressful time in her life. She cries when she talks about her own capacity for change, and how she is in a better place now – and, indeed, if the parents are in a better place, so are the kids. She still struggles to make ends meet, but she has a new relationship with a good man who gives her the emotional support she needs. When Appachey first saw the film, he was in tears, too. When asked about his reaction, he admitted that it had more to do with Harley’s story than his own. Through the making of the film and the experience of going to film festivals together, Appachey and Harley have become close — they’ve even had a couple of sleepovers. With summer classes, Appachey was able to start the 8th grade in the fall, but had a hard time keeping his cool.  He was recently sheltered by Missouri’s Division of Youth Services.

[Note: The filmmakers’ have established a fund as a way to give directly to the boys and their families: https://rally.org/BoysofRICHHILL. Everything will be evenly divided among Andrew, Harley, and Appachey.]

Getting back to the genesis of the film, how did you gain the trust of these kids and their families?

Tracy: I felt strongly that the families wanted to tell their story – no one was knocking on their door at all – and when we did, they were incredibly welcoming. It was humbling when the trust was there from the get-go. And I hope, in the process of making the film, we didn’t do anything to betray that trust.

Some of it was on my grandparents’ good name. My grandmother was the 3rd grade school teacher in Rich Hill; my grandfather owned the town grocery store, and when he was forced to close it, he became the rural mail carrier. Both my grandparents worked hard and although they would never be considered well off, they were fortunate to have steady jobs and a home. And they gave back to their community.

Also many folks in town were familiar with Be Good Smile Pretty, and respected my work – in part that I had put myself in a film – so had an understanding of what it was like to put others in one.

Finally, I think my gender allowed for our access. The moms or grandmas were the key to our getting in the front door. There was a trust with the families in part because I could swap stories about raising kids, and show pictures of my family. For the most part, fellow moms have camaraderie — we know how hard it is, and are much less judgmental with each other about the pitfalls and frustrations.

As a filmmaking team, how did you divvy up the many tasks involved in directing and producing a documentary? Did you each wear different hats, or share all the hats?

Andrew: We share a lot of hats, and each wear a few unique ones. Our division of labor happened pretty naturally on our first few shoots, and we fell into a rhythm after that. I shot all of the film and handled most of the technical aspects. Tracy ran nearly all of the interviews, because she’s quite good at that. When we weren’t on the ground in Rich Hill, we would both cut together sequences, and talk a lot about the shape of the film, and what stories interested us. Then, once our editor was on board cutting full-time, we’d tackle notes as a team. With documentary, I really can’t encourage co-directing enough. There is just simply too much for one person to handle.

Tracy: This film was special to bring us together. We consider ourselves independent filmmakers, who shared in an important collaboration with this film, in large part because of our family connection to the community. Andrew has a background as a director of photography, working in narratives; and I come from a documentary background, as a producer and director. We were able to divide the work pretty evenly; in the field, especially. Andrew was behind the camera and I was engaged with the families and looking beyond what we were capturing.

We both have editing experience, so were able to take our footage and begin cutting scenes before we brought on our editor, Jim Hession. This was incredibly important to shape the film along the way and narrow our focus for future trips. During post[-production], it was all hands on deck. As the primary producer, it was my job also to do a lot of the scheduling, logistics, and financing (the first year was on my credit cards). Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor no matter what — whether you have a co-director or not — and that’s one of my favorite parts of the process: bouncing ideas, reacting to material in different ways, elevating a film in the process.

Andrew, of Rich Hill
Andrew, of Rich Hill

What projects are you working on next (if you can talk about them)? 

Tracy: I’ve been commissioned to make a film that I’m really excited about (but alas, can’t talk about it!) Independently, I’m also working on a project in an all-girl’s school in California, and I’m really excited to be expanding our short film Sarah’s Uncertain Path into a feature.

Andrew: I’m finishing up my next film in early January and it will premiere shortly thereafter. It’s a fiction film I directed and co-wrote with my longtime friend Neima Shahdadi. It’s called One & Two and is about two siblings who share a supernatural escape from an oppressive home life, but struggle with their secret as their mother falls gravely ill. It’s a dark fairy tale and I’m really excited about it. Kiernan Shipka from Mad Men and Timothee Chalamet from Interstellar play the leads.

What are your three favorite films?

Tracy: This answer will always change. I love narrative and documentary films, and lots of genres. (I don’t seen documentary as a “genre.”) Top 10 documentaries: Grey Gardens, Stories We Tell, The Up Series, Roger & Me, Harlan County, USA, Fog of War, Hoop Dreams, Sherman’s March, and Nobody’s Business. And two new ones I really love this year: 112 Weddings and Actress.

Some of my favorite narrative films are The Elephant Man, Sophie’s Choice, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Hurt Locker, and The Piano.


Learn more about Rich Hill on Independent Lens >>

Bonus: Listen to an interview the filmmakers did for Wisconsin Public Radio.

Tracy speaks with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Read this eye-opening piece on the film published on Bill Moyers’ website.