We watch films about the Great Depression secure in the knowledge that they have a happy ending. They may portray the horrific poverty that struck the nation, only to then focus on the resilience of the American people and our eventual triumph.
But perhaps they help us forget our epidemic now.
Fifty million Americans live below the poverty line. Even more — nearly 80 million, according to a new census report — live in “poverty areas,” defined recently by Slate.com “as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.” The problem is most severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, though concentrated poverty is growing fastest in the Midwest.
Documentary filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo try to bring these numbers home in Rich Hill, which this year won the grand jury prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Instead of focusing on the problem in urban areas, Rich Hill looks at a much larger population, America’s rural poor.
Tragos and Palermo tell the story of “Rich Hill,” a Missouri town of 1,396 located 80 miles south of Kansas City. Set over 12 months and book-ended by successive July Fourth celebrations, Rich Hill focuses on the lives of three adolescents. Highly individualistic, and with their own particular quirks, they are trapped in what seems an unending cycle of desperation.
Sixth-grader Appachey, 12, describes himself as a serious skateboarder who loves to name each of his boards. But most of the time, he is consumed by rage, which he directs at his single mother, sisters and school.
“My dad left when I was 6, just walked out,” he says while smoking one of an alarming number of cigarettes. “Didn’t even say ‘bye.’ ”
Andrew, 13, has an optimism that seems to belie his circumstances. “We’re not trash,” he says. “We’re good people.”
His attitude seems to be inherited from his father, a country singer who refuses to be defeated but whose restlessness leads him to move the family around on a whim.
The poverty that the boys face is exacerbated by criminality and substance abuse. Harley, 15, knows that firsthand: He has lived with his grandmother since his mother was sentenced to prison for attempted murder.
Tragos and Palermo assume too much by using these three boys to stand in for an entire population.
Yet they should be commended. Instead of drowning us with statistics, they show us real lives, flesh-and-blood people.
Their film would be even more compelling if it followed up with further reports, perhaps a few years apart, charting the three boys’ fates.
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