“People expect me to have a better future than I do. I don't know what to do anymore.” So declares a twelve-year-old boy less than five minutes into this film, and at once we are ruthlessly pulled into a place that is both a trap and a home.
Set in the small town of Rich Hill, Missouri, a once prosperous community turned to rubble, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Troz Palermo's Sundance award-winning documentary follows the daily lives of three boys and their families -- Andrew, Harley, and Appachey -- all of them suffering from the staggering effects of poverty.
In this section of America's agricultural heartland, buildings crumble and low income is commonplace. With a population of 1,393, Rich Hill is a town where families struggle to keep roofs over their heads, a mother waits out a prison sentence after an astounding failure of the justice system, and single parents struggle to sustain themselves. Yet despite the seemingly unending hardships, the boys nurture their dreams of the future while navigating the fragile tightrope of adolescence in a birthplace where survival is uncertain from day to day.
Captured with unflinching honesty, Rich Hill is both a heartbreaking coming-of-age saga and a searing revelation of a wrenching aspect of rural life, illuminating the faces behind the statistics of poverty and making their voices heard.
Women and Hollywood spoke with Tragos about her personal connection to Rich Hill, giving voice to the voiceless, and the difficulty of balancing filmmaking with motherhood.
WaH: What drew you to making this film?
TDT: Rich Hill was my father’s hometown and a place that I loved visiting as a child. But over the years, I’d lost a connection and wanted to go back and understand what it was like to live there now. Soon after we started filming, it became less of a meditation on a pile of bricks – and more urgent. We saw how many families were living on so very little and truly struggling, [and] we wanted to give them a voice.
WaH: As someone who grew up in a small Missouri town close to Rich Hill, the surroundings and stories are very familiar to me. Your father was raised in Rich Hill. How did knowledge of the town influence your perspective and approach?
TDT: Rich Hill was a second home to me – I had known much of the community my entire life. I have always had a real love of the place – not just for the beauty of its rural setting, but also the warmth and trust of the people. At the same time, I also straddle an insider/outside status – so I could see things from a different perspective – and some of the harsh realities were perhaps more apparent to me.
WaH: There's a strong focus on the mothers of the three boys. What do you think your perspective as a woman brought to the film?
TDT: My perspective as a woman and a mother allowed us a certain access we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I connected with the moms in the film – we swapped stories about raising kids, we connected emotionally – and that was part of why they extended their trust to come into their homes and film. It also allowed me to cut past some of the posturing with the boys. They saw me as a mother figure, and knew I wasn’t so interested in their tough-guy act.
WaH: What made you decide to tell a story about rural American through the eyes of adolescents?
TDT: We chose to tell the story from the eyes of kids because we thought it would be harder to dismiss them – to say that they deserved to be in their circumstances because of their own moral failings or desire to “live off the system.” We hoped audiences would then extend whatever empathy or connection they felt with the kids to their parents – who were not so long ago kids themselves.
WaH: How did spending time with the boys and their families impact your own life?
TDT: In many ways – it was hard work and sometimes intensely stressful. There were also a lot of joys and good times. Each boy taught me so much. I have been incredibly affected by Andrew’s optimism, Harley’s humor, and Appachey’s forgiveness. I am touched by the parents – who struggle to provide for their kids in very basic ways – and who became parents when they were just kids themselves. My relationship with the boys and their families is ongoing – and I hope will be lifelong.
WaH: What were some of the biggest challenges/difficulties in getting this made?
TDT: Staying in touch with the families in our film was a big challenge. For the most part, we relied on Facebook, which the kids in our film accessed at school or at the library (free wi-fi). Cellphones were always running out of minutes, so that was never terribly reliable. Sometimes we would just have to show up and reconnect. More than once, Andrew’s family had moved, and we wouldn’t be able to visit him. We had to make a lot of plane-ticket changes at the last minute.
As with any independent endeavor, there are also financial challenges. I personally funded our first year of production on credit cards – and that was a huge investment for me to make. Eventually, we were fortunate to have the support of amazing organizations, such as Sundance, MacArthur, Cinereach, IDA’s Pare Lorentz, and two amazing EPs who believed in the film and its potential.
Finally, for me, there was a work/life balance challenges. I have two daughters – and I was obsessed with this film and worked super long hours. I felt a strange tension of making a film about families and struggling to maintain a relationship with my own.
WaH; Do you have any advice for aspiring female filmmakers?
TDT: It’s not an equal playing field, so look for breaks and seize opportunities whenever you can. Ultimately, greenlight yourself. Don’t wait for someone to validate your worth and your talent – validate it by going out and confidently doing the work, with whatever means you have and build a community and team around you.
Independent filmmaking is often like a start-up – and one has to have an entrepreneurial spirit and believe in yourself before anyone else will follow. The producer’s dilemma is make your film a runaway train that investors and funders can’t help but support – even when secretly you may feel stalled out and broke.
The bottom line is that you don’t take "no" for an answer. A rejection is often an invitation to start a conversation.