When the Hillbilly Shot the Filmmaker: The Genius of ‘Stranger with a Camera’

We’ve been fighting over hillbilly elegies for a long time.

Amid the buzz and furor over the Ron Howard movie, I watched Stranger with a Camera, a 2000 doc by Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret.

The Appodlachia podcast team, John Isner and Chuck Corra, published an anthology of books, movies and podcasts about Appalachia, and included the film, available for free here. (I’m grateful they also included my PBS movie about Moundsville, West Virginia.)

Stranger is an American treasure, and should be watched by every journalist, activist, politician, preacher, and professor. The movie is about our nightmare, source shoots storyteller, and is a deep meditation on the charge of “poverty porn” leveled at Hillbilly Elegy (which I wrote about for America Magazine.)

In 1967, a Kentucky man named Hobart Ison murdered Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker surfing a wave of journalists, documentarians and activists sweeping into Appalachia in the 1960s, spinning poor white people stories. These hillbilly elegists were inspired by a 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and by President Lyndon Johnson’s martial focus on the spectacle of Appalachian indigence.

The murder of O’Connor, recounted in Stranger with a Camera, is a shocking, and surprisingly rare, case in the history of journalism and documentary filmmaking, although violence is a reasonable fear when the president calls reporters enemies of the people. (I was worried when we premiered Moundsville in Moundsville.)

In Kentucky, it happened. Ison pulled the trigger. The case was famous. Calvin Trillin wrote about it in the New Yorker.

What makes Stranger with a Camera remarkable is that the filmmaker, Barret, is from near the scene of the crime in Kentucky. She tells the story while relentlessly questioning herself and viewers on the deeper questions surrounding this random act of violence: Who should tell the story of a poor community? If it’s an outsider, how should they tell it? What are every storyteller’s responsibilities? Barret herself had the experience of living in an area while seeing the “poverty pictures on TV”, movies like Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People.

O’Connor was working on a movie called US that aimed to show the fragility of the American dream. Eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the entire country, attracted outside chroniclers. O’Connor and his crew were filming coal miners and their families. After stopping by a rental home in Jeremiah, KY, they were ambushed by the family’s landlord, Ison. He walked up and fired several shots with a .38-calibre Smith&Wesson, killing O’Connor. Ison’s family had owned the land since the 1890s. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison, and released on parole after one.

O’Connor, by all accounts, was an empathetic actor, experienced at traveling and interviewing people all over the world. “He was there for the underdog,” his daughter says. A good guy.

In her twin roles as storyteller and neighbor, Barret felt called to probe what had happened more deeply. “As a filmmaker, I felt that O’Connor’s death had something to teach me,” she says in her voiceover. “What can I learn from this story now that I have stood on both sides of the camera?”

There is another side. While Barret condemns the killing, she criticizes the exploitation. Some outsiders, she says, “mined the images the way the companies had mined the coal.” An army of pen and camera-wielding storytellers storming the hills were consistently heading straight for the most rundown places they could find. Poverty porn, a tradition dating back to slumming in 19th century New York. Barret felt insulted, she says, when filmmakers “focused only on the deprivation and didn’t look past it the lives that are the real wealth of the culture.”

What does this have to do with Hillbilly Elegy?

As the movie drops on Netflix this week, we’ve been on another frenetic ride into the story space of Appalachia, poor whites and so-called Trump country. The incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden is drawing up strategies for reaching out to disaffected and disconnected America. There’s a Marshall Plan for Appalachia in the works.

Barret’s movie poses the right question at the right time: “What are the responsibilities of any of us who take the images of other people and put them to our own uses?” Hobart Ison was wrong to kill, she concludes, “but the filmmaker’s job is to be true to the experiences of both Hugh O’Connor and Hobart Ison, and in the end to trust that that is enough.”

John W. Miller

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