Excuse me, Ms. Diane Sawyer, but what exactly were you trying to do in your 20/20 special A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains? (Sidenote, Diane: Children? Seriously? You could choke on that pathos.) It’s not that I doubt your real affection for the predicament of poor Appalachians, but you’ve fallen into a very common trap. Oh, Diane. Haven’t you heard about the exploitation of Appalachians? It happened over forty years ago and now you’re trying to bring it back?
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Harlan County USA as much as the next person, but just take a look at the beginning of Stranger with a Camera. Do you really want to risk getting some up and coming reporter shot? Okay, I don’t say that seriously, but really, you’re walking a slippery slope.
It’s not that I don’t want people to know. Yeah, Appalachia can be a forgotten about area of America and its people seem automatically reduced to stereotypes, but really only because people make them out to be. Hey, my aunt is from West Virginia and she doesn’t hear the end of it even though the rest of that side of the family is from Eastern Kentucky themselves. To be fair though, I don’t hear the end of being born and raised in Ohio.
Grandfather: You know what a buckeye is, Kaitlin?
Me: What’s that?
Grandfather: A worthless nut.
So, I understand the instinct to try and produce a work with this particular pathos laden slant:
Don’t you think that’s a bit heavy handed, darlin’? And is this even true? Is taking the star quarter back of a football team really showing the average Appalachian child? I think it does reveal the difficulty of any poor person to get out of their poverty. And, in fact, these kids from Paintsville disagree with the representation of their area:
(Sidenote 2: Isn’t it interesting with all the networking abilities that we have today, people would set out to revise the history that someone else is creating for them?) So, as you can see, one of the areas that you covered, Paintsville, has its good side and its bad, which would seem to be the same as any other place, really. Like, Chicago or New York or LA. There are some really fine, prosperous areas in all these cities as there are areas of crime and poor education, but, for some reason, the crime and drug use in Paintsville is uniquely interesting simply because it’s Appalachian.
(Sidenote 3: Diane, while we’re speaking of truth, could you correct your captions, please. They keep writing out “hollow,” but, phonetically speaking, he’s saying “holler.” Yes, he is referring to a hollow, but if you want to capture Appalachia, then please capture it as it really is–as they really pronounce it. I love an Eastern Kentucky accent. Don’t water it down, don’t make it Northern.)
There is American Hollow, though; a documentary made by Rory Kennedy in 1999 which also depicted the lives of poor Appalachians. This one I think it pretty fair and filmed much more objectively–if objectivity really exists. Even Harlan County (and I mean I love Harlan County USA) filmed to be very clearly pro-union:
American Hollow, though, takes that more fly on the wall documentary approach.
It’s not that complete objectivity is necessary for everything, but I think that when you try to pin down an entire population like that of poverty-stricken Appalachians, it’s probably best to take a step back before making commentary on it. I guess, Diane, my personal subjectivity is what’s going to take over this final assessment. American Hollow is the closest thing to what I’ve personally seen. That certainly is not the most iron-clad evidence, but that particular film seems fair. It shows the good with the bad, the tragic with the elation. It just feels honest. Let me reiterate, though, that I’m referring specifically to those living in poverty–it most certainly is not a reflection upon Appalachians in their entirety. Just to make that clear.
So, I guess I may just be swept up in its rhetoric, but I have to ask you, dear Diane. If your documentary feels simply like an exploitation, then who are you really helping? Even if your intentions are good, are you really making the difference that you set out to make?