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David Sutherland (left) checking the camera angle on a hillside in eastern Kentucky, with cameraman Bill Arnold.

the story behind "country boys"

Filmmaker David Sutherland writes about what initially brought him to Appalachia, what surprised him about his trip through the region, and how his journey ended at the David School, an alternative high school in Floyd County, eastern Kentucky.

I am a portraitist, not an investigative reporter, but what I saw totally belied [what I had read].

Just before "The Farmer's Wife" first aired in 1998, one of my funders for the program conducted a test screening. The response was generally positive, but a large number of viewers said that the Buschkoetters didn't "look poor." I was surprised, to say the least, because even though they had a small house and sent their children to parochial school, the family lived way below the poverty level and often didn't have enough food to eat.

So that response got me thinking, "What does poverty look like?" I remembered the photos on the covers of Life and Look magazines in the late '50s and early '60s, when the media had sent correspondents down to West Virgina and the rest of Appalachia, and I thought how over the last 25 years poverty has taken on an urban face. I don't mean to say that urban poverty isn't a problem, but over the past decade or so, media coverage has focused more and more on breaking news and urban issues and less and less on the plight of the rural poor.

That convinced me to go to Appalachia. After "The Farmer's Wife" aired, I worked with the Lutheran Disaster Relief and other rural mental health groups to speak with family farmers in the Midwest, and through this work, I was introduced to a network of preachers and service groups that extends across Appalachia. With their help, I gained access to backwoods hollows where reporters and filmmakers can't usually go.

As I began my search for subjects -- a search that took me into every county in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky -- I read several syndicated columns about how rural America is being left behind in the technology age. I am a portraitist, not an investigative reporter, but what I saw totally belied the articles. As an example: In 1999, much of Magoffin County (in Kentucky) was at or below the lowest poverty level in the United States; in that same year, 70 percent of that county was wired for the Internet, way above the national average at that time. Imagine, throughout Appalachia, seeing children coming out of a clapboard trailer, surrounded by fighting cocks in cages and attack dogs, and on the roof of the trailer there's this enormous satellite dish! Everyone had MTV, and no matter how poor the conditions in which these families lived, all the kids understood my '60s lingo. Nothing was what I had assumed it would be. The teenagers in these areas were sophisticated on the computer in a way that even affluent college students sometimes are not. They were buying strings for their guitars on the same web site as David Bowie -- I mean, they knew everything.

And so, originally, I had wanted to do a portrait of a small hollow. But I was so struck by the sophistication level of the high school kids, and by their media perceptions of themselves through the outside world, that I shifted my focus entirely. I guess I was most interested in the commonality between Appalachian kids and kids all over the U.S. I never have an agenda, and I knew that the social issues raised in an area with drastically limited opportunities would resonate with people from all walks of life.

When I decided to film at the David School, I needed the type of access where I could film the classroom scenes close up and intimate like in the TV series "My So Called Life" -- except that was fiction and this film is real life. Chris Johnson and Cody Perkins both had strong personalities and strong voices -- they were able to speak clearly and effectively about what was going on in their lives. I always trust my instincts, and when I found them I knew they would be in it for the long haul.

Life happens faster in Appalachia -- you've got to get a job when you get out of high school, there's no other choice, and kids get thrown into adulthood much faster than they do in suburbia. Besides the usual drama of teenage life, both kids had troubled pasts with school and their families, and I knew that if I followed them, there would be a drama that would be both universal and representative of Appalachia.

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posted jan. 9, 2006

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