Top Sundance documentary 'Rich Hill' spotlights small-town poverty and adolescence

Rich Hill, Missouri is not unlike other towns. In some ways, it’s an everytown—a microcosm of the many once-thriving areas that have become irreparably blighted in the last half century.

But for documentary filmmakers and first cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, Rich Hill happened to be where their grandparents lived and their parents grew up. Their collective ties to the area allowed them to use their documentary—named for the town—to tell a story that was unique and hyper-personal, and one that paints a portrait of adolescence in America’s forgotten towns.

Tragos and Palermo didn’t have any issues gaining trust and access in Rich Hill—their grandparents had been staples of the community. “Our grandmother had been a beloved third-grade schoolteacher. Our grandfather had delivered a lot of people’s mail,” says Tragos—whose first film, Be Good, Smile Pretty, was about her father, who died in Vietnam when she was three months old. The community’s awareness of that film also helped establish a baseline for what kind of story these filmmakers wanted to tell. “They knew that we didn’t have nefarious intentions. We were very up-front about wanting to give them a voice and tell their story and hear their perspective. There was a sense of being honored that anyone was interested and an eagerness to have the opportunity to tell their story,” she says.

Who they’d be chronicling was the tricky part, but eventually they decided to focus in on three teenage boys: Andrew, 14, a budding Christian whose family is struggling to get by; Harley, 15, a humorous kid who lives with his grandmother because his mother is in prison for trying to kill his stepfather; and Appachey, 13, who waxes poetic about trying to get to China to become an art teacher, but who can’t seem to advance in school.

“We cast a really wide net. We knew we wanted to focus on the families who were struggling,” says Tragos. “At some point we knew that the heart of the story should be told from the perspective of these kids.” As products of pure circumstance, she says she knew that “it would be harder to dismiss them.”

Truth and fairness were the ultimate goals, but those can prove a difficult to achieve when dealing with adolescents in such sensitive circumstances. “There were many stressful moments, and there were things we shot that were a lot darker than what actually may have ended up in movie,” says Tragos, which sometimes meant just turning the camera off. Other times, it meant actually attempting to intervene. “We were more involved than one might think,” she says. “We talked a lot with them. When Harley is walking out of school, there were some conversations along the lines of ‘Hey, maybe you want to turn around and get back in there?’ But we didn’t want it to be about us, or our involvement, or coming into town to rescue these kids. We wanted it to be about their lives and what is happening to them.”

And, of course, their film ultimately made it into the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it would go on to win the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary.

But the Festival was ultimately a bittersweet experience. Days before Tragos, Palermo, and their subjects left for Utah, they received news that Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth Jewell, had died suddenly at the age of 39. They worked together to raise money to cover the funeral, but they also had to prepare for the most high-profile showcase of their work to date.

“I’d been in such a rush to the festival and thinking about the film and everything logistically that it really didn’t hit me personally till the first Q&A. Andrew said something about her and I just really lost it on stage,” Palermo says.

Tragos added, “It was a lot. It was a very intense and happy and full and sad time. Anger is part of grief, I suppose, but I was angry that she didn’t get to have that experience. We had been talking about the dress she was going to wear. We were going to get all the moms makeovers. It sounds silly and maybe insignificant, but I think it would have been a lot of fun.”

The three boys in the film, meanwhile, were able to enjoy the Festival experience, teaming up to make sure that their posters were on the top of the stack up and down Main Street and looking to their families for support.

Months later, even as Tragos and Palermo dig into other projects and wait for Rich Hill to arrive in theaters (Aug. 1) and VOD (Aug. 5), they still check in with the boys and their families regularly. Andrew is in Montana, doing odd jobs and trying to save up money for his own truck. Appachey, who Tragos says is “in a much better place” than he was in the film, has completed the 7th grade but will still have to take some summer classes to advance to the 8th grade. Their home is still volatile, and his older brother is undergoing meth rehab.

As for Harley, Tragos says “right now he’s enjoying things, but it’s about to get hard”—he has a brain tumor that has to be operated on before they know exactly what it is. Harley has access to Medicaid, but Tragos has helped to arrange a visit to another doctor in St. Louis for a second opinion. Harley’s mother, meanwhile, will meet with her parole board in July.

Clearly, the story for documentary filmmakers does not end when the final cut hits theaters. Tragos and Palermo know they are intrinsically part of the boys’ lives now.

“Andrew and I have talked about doing some sort of thing 10 years from now to see how everyone is doing—if they’re parents, and how they are approaching things,” says Tragos. “Their lives will be different because they participated in this film.”


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