Appalshop documentaries
Inventing and preserving Appalachia

by Jane M. Gaines

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 53-63
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006


In Appalachia On Our Mind, Henry Shapiro looks at what he describes as the "invention" of a region — not identifying a geographic location or discovering cultural similarities between peoples — but, rather, needing to construct Appalachia as a concept. This concept, as Shapiro sees it, was developed between 1870 and 1900 as a way of explaining the strangeness of a segment of the U.S. population to the rest of the country.[1][open notes in new window] In the 1880s, local-color fiction drew attention to Appalachia. Sophisticated easterners avidly read that fiction and found represented within it the manner of speech and customs of Appalachian characters, here treated as fascinating but inexplicable oddities (Shapiro, pp. 3-31). "Region," then, constructed an indigenous culture burrowed deep into the southern Appalachian mountains and grounded in the mountaineers themselves. "Region" explained the stubborn otherness of the mountain character as a consequence of distant removal and the distinctive anachronism of mountain culture as the consequence of entrapment in time and place.

Understandably, Shapiro's idea that Appalachia is an invention has caused some stir within Appalachian Studies, since that discipline is founded on the premise that a native culture exists in the mountains. The claim that Appalachia is a concept constructed by outsiders as a means of legitimizing their presence in the mountains, whether as "uplifters" or economic developers, disturbs the preferred view that the outsiders discovered a pre-existing indigenous culture.

This notion of untouched culture has inspired and rationalized missionary work, educational efforts, folk-culture research, and, most recently, alternative media production activity in Appalachia. What I want to examine here is the way that the documentary filmmaking tradition, especially as developed in the work produced by Appalshop film and video makers, remains deeply committed to the notion of an untouched culture in the mountains and in the mountaineers.

Shapiro's argument that Appalachia is an invention [LINE MISSING IN ORIGINAL] s, particularly as they continue the practice of documentation within this tradition, a documentary practice which carries with it particular assumptions about culture, nature, and the world that exists before the camera.[2]

Motion picture history reveals a persistent commitment to the view that documentary recording practices, against the conventions of the narrative feature film, capture life as it "really" is — especially since documentary strives to discover a subject rather than dramatize it and to strip away the theatrical devices which can be seen as distortions of the natural world. In my view, this tradition of documentary and the idea of a native Appalachian culture waiting-to-berevealed stand as companion myths. Clearly, the documentary practice developed in the region draws on the same philosophical premises which inform Appalachian Studies, premises expressed in the belief that if an authentic culture "out there" could only be retrieved, it could be used as a kind of "truth antidote" against the forces which threaten its extinction.

Within the last ten years, a new theory of documentary has evolved, informed by the poststructuralist concern with the way language organizes its own world and the philosophical challenge to the idea that we can ever objectively have knowledge of a final real world at all, since we can only know it through a linguistic system which imposes its own shape. In terms of film, this concern translates into the position that an aesthetic practice, a cinematic language, cannot neutrally reveal a final real world. In particular, documentary, because of its claim to objectivity, seems especially susceptible to the illusion that its practice is transparent.

As film critics in Britain and the U.S. have developed this new understanding about documentary, they have drawn out political implications which are not without consequence for documenting the culture of oppressed peoples.[3] Specifically, this position holds that the documentary practice which remains innocent of its own linguistic intervention is ideologically complicit since, in effect, it denies that versions of the world become constructed to serve particular interests.[4] Most important, such a theory of documentary insists that documentary realism as an aesthetic cannot tell the "truth" about oppressed people.[5]

Although this theory has something to say to documentary film/videomakers about their practice, it also has a certain rigidity. It holds that since the realistic aesthetic is always complicit, the only way to avoid making a politically regressive statement is to produce works which foreground their devices and announce their own intervention. Built into this position is an unacknowledged preference for modernism over realism. In addition, this position advances the idea that avant-garde practice will become politically oppositional by virtue of the formal devices it uses, an idea open to charges of essentialism.[6]

While I want to discuss the implications of using a documentary form, I will also take issue with the idea that the realist aesthetic can never be enlisted in the service of a political analysis. My argument will follow a kind of zigzag pattern as I lay out the case for seeing documentary as a politically naive form and then finally return, in my discussion of the folk documentary feature, HAND CARVED, to the exceptions which would pose a challenge to what has become the hard line of political modernism.[7] Within this discussion I also want to focus on regionalism as a political strategy. In the process I will draw some connections between media-making technique and political theory. But first, I want to offer some historical background as a means of illustrating the continuity between early philanthropists and contemporary media makers in the southern Appalachians.


The dilemma for the benevolent worker after the turn of the century was like the challenge facing the Appalshop production group today: Should they help mountaineers to develop "community" on the premise that those people's time-tested virtues would counter industrial society, or should the philanthropists help them to prepare for modernization? This question actually reflects how the attitude of the rest of the country vacillates toward the Appalachian "other," which, as Shapiro shows, changed over the years from a perception of "strangeness" to a conviction that the region was "lagging behind." (Shapiro, p. x) Coincident with the flowering of local color fiction in the 1880s, mountaineers were originally characterized as the United States' true ancestors. Certainly the identification of mountain people as Protestant and Anglo-Saxon made it easier to justify missionaries' efforts, but the image of Appalachians as our ancestors was also continually under threat. Mountain people, if seen as poor and ignorant, could not be model U.S. citizens, particularly if they were prone to feuding, fighting, and making moonshine. (Shapiro, pp. 102-06)

A more satisfactory explanation for Appalachian's "oddness" evolved after 1890, as mountaineers came to be understood as a "folk community." This conception of Appalachia had an added advantage. It yielded the folk-art product, which promised to make benevolence self-supporting. At the same time, outsiders in the region found a new justification for their presence. Although this lost or hidden "community" seemingly existed within the people themselves, the outsiders determined that the folk had to be taught the folk culture that they presumably already knew. Philanthropic work thus meant educating mountain people in their own culture, whether basket-making, weaving, or traditional song and dance. This rationale fostered the Appalachian settlement schools and the folk-culture curriculum at Berea College in Kentucky, but the fame and the stability of these institutions came as much from the economic viability of crafts marketing as from the uniqueness of their educational methods. (Shapiro, pp. 216; 247)

Song and dance, not as easy as handmade household goods to turn to economic benefit, became viable in another way. This more ephemeral culture established the value of Appalachian culture. Shapiro notes that folk music, originally characterized as essentially American or interestingly primitive, acquired connotations of aesthetic worth which helped to establish its high art status and justify its place in museums and art galleries. (Shapiro, pp. 220; 248)

More important, the mountain music tradition provided a folk-cultural pedigree for the Appalachian product, and its genealogy was finally confirmed by British folk music specialist Cecil B. Sharp who collected ballads in the mountains during visits to the U.S. just before the first World War (Shapiro, p. 252-259). The 1917 publication of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Sharp's work in collaboration with Olive Dame Campbell, the grand dame of the missionaries, marks the end of the era of benevolence as a solution to the Appalachian "problem."[8] After 1917, Shapiro concludes, Appalachia would no longer seem culturally deviant in a way that would require the philanthropic services it had been receiving (Shapiro, p. 257). The primitive but essential culture Sharp had identified still seemed an aberration, but not from the U.S. norm. Now it seemed a holdout from modern civilization (Shapiro, p. 261).

The position of the social-change worker in Appalachia in the late 1960s in some ways resembled that of the benevolent worker in 1917. Like the earlier benevolent workers, 60s VISTA volunteers could look back on a failed attempt to normalize mountaineers — this time part of a national campaign to fight backwardness: the War on Poverty. Like fifty years before, the question still remained whether Appalachians needed to prepare for a modern age or whether they needed to develop "community." But would such community help them to completely standoff modernization, or to ameliorate its effects? To encourage the continuance of the "old ways" could, after all, inhibit modernization, as the number of stories about old folks standing in front of bulldozers testifies. The idea of starting a media workshop in the mountains to record and celebrate Appalachian culture, then, would seem to tackle the contradiction between preservation and modernization head on.


For the filmmakers, recording technicians, and photographers associated with the Appalshop production center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, preservation and modernization remain a delicate double commitment. Appalshop, today, is housed in a technologically up-to-the-minute plant built in 1981 with federal government, regional government, and private foundation funds. The facility, including television and music recording studios, and a motion picture and theatrical performance auditorium, has more facilities under one roof than any other alternative media production group in the U.S. has ever boasted. In organizing Appalshop, young people from the region actually reversed the pattern of outsider-uplift which Shapiro documents.

As the story goes, they did this by taking over the Office of Equal Opportunity program in filmmaking which trained them. The Whitesburg, Kentucky, program, in addition to programs in Puerto Rico, Hartford, Connecticut, New York City, and Chicago, were established in 1969 to train disadvantaged youth in film production with the aim of pulling them up and out of their neighborhoods by preparing them for film and television industry jobs. Reversing the program's mandate, the Appalachian group decided to keep the technologically trained people in the region rather than let them drain out to the coasts. When the grant was terminated, they kept the equipment instead of returning it to the government. Originally, the shop was to have been situated in rural Pike County, but Whitesburg offered Appalshop the community base that had been stipulated by the grant. Furthermore, this location connected the group by association with the Mountain Eagle, the lone Appalachian town newspaper, which has made its reputation by criticizing the coal companies.[9]

Before the 1984 production of STRANGERS AND KIN, the first of the NEH-funded, history series which mixes documentary footage with dramatization, Appalshop-produced films fell into one of two categories: folk documentaries and people's-struggle documentaries.[10] In this second category I would include films about local social-change efforts such as THE MILLSTONE SEWING CENTER and THE STRUGGLE OF COON BRANCH MOUNTAIN as well as such organizing films as THE BUFFALO CREEK FLOOD: AN ACT OF MAN and COAL-MINING WOMEN. While some of the people's-struggle films are bold political statements, the folk documentaries, in their intense concentration on the folk product, often seem to have blotted out all consciousness of the coalfield, which is the insistent subject of the struggle documentaries.

One of the fascinations these films hold, then, has to do with the way they appear to have sealed themselves off formally from economic issues. The films I want to discuss here are largely portraits of master craftsmen. Since they do maintain an idea of men as masters of these crafts and agents of history, I use the pronoun "he" to emphasize this.[11] Although my analysis concentrates on CHAIRMAKER, SOUR WOOD MOUNTAIN DULCIMERS, WATERGROUND, TRADITION, CATFISH: MAN OF THE WOODS, MOUNTAIN FARMER, and HAND CARVED, other films such as FIXIN' TO TELL ABOUT JACK, OAKSIE, and WOODROW CORNETF; LETCHER COUNTY BUTCHER share similar features. In addition, since 1979, Appalshop has produced HEADWATERS, a half-hour weekly series aired on the commercial station WKYH-TV in Hazard, Kentucky. Although these community portraits are taped on video, they share many of the film documentaries' conventions.

Although the modernization and preservation issues are more likely to be addressed on the macro-scale of employment opportunities and production facilities, the contradiction between the two issues seems sharpest at the microscale — in the meeting between the mountaineer and the recording device. What I see here is that the use of cinema verité techniques of shooting and cutting shows a kind of cautious respect for the incongruity between the master craftsman and modern technology.[12] I shall analyze this meeting further and show how the cinema verité aesthetic stands as emblematic of the contradictions I refer to here. To do that, I need to make a distinction between the preserving and the evidencing aspects of documentary, in which the former
aspect recovers and the latter aspect proves.


In the Appalshop folk documentaries, preservation incorporates an important "passing on" process. This process marks these films as different from either the classic ethnographic film, a subgenre of the documentary film, or the straight folklorist record, best exemplified by the work of the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee, whose archival function began with co-director Bill Ferris's recordings of Mississippi Delta Blues singers. In this tradition, the folklore record serves as storage for special knowledge or expertise in, for instance, song performance, furniture construction, or land cultivation.

The promise of new technologies for folklorists has meant a greater ease in capturing a cultural totality in fuller detail. Advanced folklore-gathering tools included first, the audio tape recorder, then the still camera, and finally the motion picture and video cameras.[13] Since information "gathered" on film is not cold data extracted from its context, folklorists have used the medium to root folklore subjects in their milieux. Also, the motion picture or video record approaches the folklore ideal of scientific accuracy since the film or tape record registers facial nuance and body inflection, and its record seemingly is no longer subject to the skill of the transcriber.

The Appalshop documentaries are different from the folklorist record in that they replace transcriber-observers with cultural recipients, the next generation of Appalachians, heirs to the traditions which must be handed down before those traditions get lost. Thus the cultural transmission process — there but not seen — always brackets the record itself in these films. The "transmission brackets" to which I refer do inevitably shape the shooting situation, because the Appalshop filmmakers defer to cinema verité tradition. However, the signs of transmission may not be intended to become part of the final product in most of these films.

By this I mean that the filmmakers do not plan to shoot footage of their own filmmaking process; however, improvisational exchange may produce moments that remain in the film after the final cut. The cinema verité rule requiring the pretense that camera and crew do not seem present during the filming generally remains adhered to in the folk documents. But because the handing-down process is so integral to the shooting stage, an illusion of the crew's complete invisibility becomes impossible to sustain. Does this cultural transmission then override the rules of cinema verité?

The folk-culture subject of the film passes down the lore to camera and sound-recording crew. That person is addressing the next generation of Appalachians. Although the subject's friendly, reciprocal exchange sets up the probability of dialogue, in their final edited version, the films remain predominantly monologues. The folk subject tells stories and repeats actions for the camera which he may have repeated for years, virtually alone and unacknowledged. Here is where the cinema verité aesthetic and folk culture preservation seem most compatible — the aesthetic respects the solitude of the senior, retired members of the mountain community.

And yet the style also prefigures the demise of a way of life. It produces an image of the "hold out" from modernization as a social isolate. For viewers, the verité style image of solitude contributes to the strong impression that the figure alone on the screen could be talking to himself as much as to unseen others. But social convention more often than not breaks the illusionistic spell in these films. For instance, a joke is shared at the end of HAND CARVED. The subject, alone on screen, is suddenly accompanied by laughter on the sound track, which constructs an entire room full of people in the off-screen space.[14] Although, as I have said, such signs of dialogic transmission may gradually get "erased" in post-production, interviewers' questions or fragments of conversation left in the final cut give these films a folksy sociability that distinguishes them from the straight folklorist record or the classic ethnographic film.

Also, unlike the ethnographic or folklore-record films, the Appalshop folk documentaries in some instances actually thread the cultural transmission process into the film itself, making the "handing down" aspect explicit rather than implicit.

This incorporation of part of the process is one solution to cinema verité restrictions. Giving the cultural recipient a part in the film gets around the verité ban on the intruding presence of ethnographer or interviewer. But it also has the effect of smoothing over the whole so that none of the rough edges of the transmission process seem evident. The handing down may be motivated by pairing the folk master with a folk apprentice, as in CATFISH: MAN OF THE WOODS, in which Tim Wildermuth, visiting from Indiana, hunts herbs with Catfish and supplies the rationale for Catfish's philosophical dissertation on the health benefits of herbal medicine. As heir to the knowledge of dulcimer making and playing, John McCutchen's presence in SOURWOOD MOUNTAIN DULCIMERS justifies I.D. Stamper's stories and eases the transition between the performance segments and the commentary on the history of the musical instrument.

On the part of the Appalachian filmmakers who are adept in the uses of motion picture and video technology, the preference for cinema verité suggests a profound ambivalence toward modernization. As this gets worked out in the films themselves, the filmmakers and equipment stand for the intrusion of technology. Thus, because of cinema verité conventions, film process becomes banished from the folk portrait. But filmmakers and recording instruments continually crop up in the picture. Like the myth of a pure, untouched folk culture in the mountains, the cinema verité myth of virginal transmission is no longer possible to maintain.

While an older documentary theory and practice has historically provided political cover for film/videomakers, more recently, film theory and Left activism have made the maker's relation to the documentary subject a political issue. As theorist and film/videomaker Chuck Kleinhans points out, "the maker's own position in relation to the events depicted becomes part of the heart of the work," since the race, class, and gender position of the makers may become magnified in the production process.[15] Maker-subject power difference always remains a sensitive issue for social-change media producers. They want to eradicate the inequities which their final work may inadvertently reproduce. In addition the documentarist's position stands as a special concern in the ethnographic subgenre, for the power gap between makers and their other-culture subjects is so significant.

While the ethnographic filmmaker studies the exotic culture from the outside in order to represent it to his or her own culture (Nichols, p. 238), the Appalachian filmmaker stands in an unusual position as a cultural insider, or she represents mountain traditions to Northern outsiders as well as to other Appalachians.

Thus, the difficult question to ask about the Appalachian folk documentaries is this: To what extent do they register class distinctions between college-educated media producers and less privileged mountain people? Here, I would argue that the cultural continuities between Appalachian subjects and film/video makers are stressed at the expense of dealing with social class. Again, strict adherence to the cinema verité aesthetic insures that no hint of power difference between makers and subjects is leaked.

As I noted before, issues taken up by the people's-struggle films produced at Appalshop are strangely missing from the folk documentaries. Consciousness of the coalfield economy as well as an awareness of social class differences are concerns which disappear in the folk portraits. This absence seems to be reinforced by two different ideological premises — the first characteristic of the folklore approach to history and the second specific to Appalachian film and video production.

In history as represented through folklore, the passage of time often takes the bite out of class exploitation. Hard times seems softened by the "honesty of toil" and closeness to the land. In CHAIRMAKER, Dewey Thompson's description of working as a farm hand for fifty cents a day and as a logger for most of his life gets treated in a lyrically nostalgic style. He tells the story of the last chairmaker in the county. Romanticizing work has further implications in connection with regional strategies for social change and I will return to this in a later section.


Probably the most effective argument made by the Appalshop group for seeing themselves as similar to the folk is the comparison they make between producing media and practicing folk craft. This second ideological premise, which works to deemphasize social class, depends on the idea that one makes an honest living by practicing a craft, providing for oneself by means of a special skill, whether filmmaking, chair-making, or music-making. This strong conviction has a particular regional irony, because in Appalachia today it is not possible for either a mountaineer or an alternative media worker to live for an entire year on the income produced from one's craft.

The idea of filmmaking as analogous to a folk art such as chair-making becomes problematic in another way, for the art of classical cinema, especially classical documentary, involves concealing the marks of one's craft.

For instance, the expert documentary photographer learns to smoothly follow focus, or adjust the focal length of the camera lens so as not to call attention to changes in the distance between subject and camera that will register as "out of focus" in the image. In the classical narrative and documentary traditions the professional editor learns to "cut on movement" and "cover" cuts with voices-over in order to disguise editing-so as to piece together a visual coherence in such a way that the piecing remains undetectable to the eye. The crafting analogy holds up even less when the trend toward video and away from more expensive film processes is considered. Electronic video editing eliminates the hands-on-the-material step which film cutters consider the essence of crafting.[16] "Craft" in film or video finally means camouflage — creating the illusion that there is no craft. This becomes the opposite of building, carving, or weaving an aesthetically pleasing object, which leaves the maker with something to show for his artistry. The finished documentary work certainly stands as a concrete art object. But in the ethnographic subgenre into which these films can easily fit, the film should reveal, through mechanical recording, something other than the film itself. Content becomes everything in the ethnographic tradition.

"HAND CARVED is a lovely machine-made tribute to fading handmade craftsmanship," says a review of the film in the Washington Post.[17] Here the analogy between media production and traditional craft works a deception. The analogy denies that the relation between the rise of mechanical and electronic technologies and the demise of the craft is one of cause and effect. The mountaineers in the folk documentaries sometimes express different sympathies since they have experienced machine technology as a direct threat to the handmade object's survival.

Chester Cornett, who takes two months to make an eight-legged chair, describes how he had to design these curiosities in order to beat production-line competition. While the film illustrates the perfection of the hand-carved holes in close up, in voice over Chester explains why he couldn't get the results he wanted by using a power lathe. But the mountaineers' objections are finally quieted. By bringing the handmade object face to face with the recording machine, the threat is denied. The machine seems to protect endangered culture as it preserves it. And the folk documentaries argue that we do have humane uses for advanced technology after all.

If the preserving function of media technology lends itself to the view that there is an endangered body of folk culture which can be recovered intact with the help of more efficient and precise instruments, the evidencing function supports the view that this culture is indigenous, flourishing like wildlife in its native habitat. In both the documentary and ethnographic traditions, the cinema sign or image often becomes regarded as having an evidential status in the way it serves as a source of authentication. (Nichols, p.239) This "realist" position, as it is called, holds that cinema has a special relation with its subject matter because its photographic processes produce a measurable imprint of the world before the camera. Realism, fully elaborated as an aesthetic in the earliest theories of film as art, has since been challenged in academic circles although it still persists in popular belief.[18] Since popular belief colors both production and reception of documentaries, we can safely say that technologically recorded images stand to most people in the culture as hard evidence of the existence of the real world referent.


The folk documentary makes its most convincing argument for the existence of native mountain culture by offering the photographic image as verification. However, this proof becomes undeniably reinforced by other "reality cues" provided by sound recording and editing techniques. Mountain speech, marked by characteristic inflections, may work as an especially convincing sign of true or authentic Appalachianness. To achieve the effect of mountain people really speaking, the films use synchronous sound, an illusion created by matching the magnetic-tape record of an interview with the motion-picture-film record of the same.[19] In addition, documentary location-sound makes use of an audio cross-section of a particular place to anchor the subject in his milieu, as, for instance, with the crickets and roosters picked up by microphones which locate Dewey Thompson in the rural mountains. The native speech challenges the outsider's ear, and too much characteristic background sound or "presence" may seem like interference to some audiences.

Since the realist aesthetic here depends so strictly on the equation between native speech and authenticity, a clarifying narrator — either a disembodied voice or a screen presence — would seem an intrusion. Appalshop educational distribution has responded to viewers' possible difficulties with the rough sound track and the mountain speaker by including a transcript with each film, a practice which also seems to confirm the influence of the folklore-gathering tradition, in which cultural content becomes carried by verbal language as much as nonverbal visual and aural rhythms.

In CHAIRMAKER, Dewey Thompson's speech, synchronized with his image, functions as verification. Also, separated from the image, his voice can magically cover cutaway shots (such as the image of the photograph of John Kennedy), which are placed in the film in the editing stage. Once established as integrally belonging to the subject and his world, the voice "laid over" the track gives the impression that Dewey Thompson has continued to talk in the same space and time.

What the viewer actually sees on the screen, though, is a reassembled version of Thompson's backwoods, front porch, living room, and woodshed. Because viewers know and accept cinematic rules for building space with various shots, they will understand these segments as meaning: "This is a mountain home." The lyric realism of this style of editing blends the directional flow of movements, whether chopping, sawing, or shaving wood, and encourages the viewer to perceive continuum instead of discontinuity. Here, documentary realism, the style so often associated with anti-illusionism, actually delivers its impression of the real world by means of continuity editing, the illusionistic technique used in constructing theatrical fiction films.

The classic documentary stance depends upon a belief that there could be some reality before the camera which was still untouched by human social intervention. This stance has certain political implications. As Eileen McGarry, in her article on documentary has pointed out, it is "…a form of ideological mystification to speak of an innocent or neutral reality, apart from human practice, since that can only be an attempt to deny or obscure intention and process (politics)."[20] To conceive of folk culture as a core of common experience that goes so far back in history that it can remain beyond the reach of human development is to say that there are some things that are the way they are "by nature"; that their meanings are self-evident and not particular versions that benefit one group's point of view more than another's.


Finally, to see folk culture as "natural" conceals the stages of its historical production, making it more difficult to grasp the possibilities for changing the course of that process of construction. Even the most apparently "natural" phenomenon — the mountains or the folk — will have an accumulated representational history as it is transposed from one medium of communication to another. The scene or event before the camera, popularly understood as the pure contents of the real world, cannot become communicated without the intervention of some kind of semiotic practice, whether verbal or visual language.[21] Even decisions made about the real world which the film will document, from the selection of locations and subjects to the choice of format, are acts of intervention in a process which people generally consider not intervening (McGarry, p. 51). The point is that wherever the filmmaker places the documentary camera, even in the remotest wild or in front of the most rare manifestation of folk culture, social practice has visited there before and was shaped in accordance with the prevailing definition of things.

The log cabin, for instance, which seems to be such a natural feature of mountain life, stands before the arrival of recording equipment as an image already encrusted with meanings. This historic representation is, furthermore, thick with political significance-the symbol of an age of American heroism. Shapiro traces the association of the log cabin and Abe Lincoln's Kentucky boyhood back to a speech made on behalf of the mountain people to the American Missionary Association in 1892. Thereafter, the log cabin would represent "nobility which seemed to accompany a particular kind of poverty and the dedication to individual freedom" (Shapiro, p. 89).

Recruited as an image in such films as SOURWOOD MOUNTAIN DULCIMERS and CHAIRMAKER, the log building carries connotations of frugality, integrity, and heroism. If folk culture in the Appalachian mountains has been historically produced or "invented," as Shapiro says, the folk documentaries stand as a cinematic construction of a mythic construction. To situate Dewey Thompson in relation to his cabin home and to choose to show him drawing water from a well is not to record impartially but to construct again the romantic version of mountain life. And that romance, over time, has not served the interests of mountain people. What interests, then, does it serve?

David Whisnat, in All That Is Native and Fine, speaks more specifically than Shapiro about the nature of these interests and supplements Shapiro in important ways. In this study of the Hindman Settlement School, the White Top Folk Festival, and the Campbells' missionary work, Whisnat argues that these cultural "intervenors" were able to define Appalachian culture for U.S. society and to "feed it back into the culture itself" where it was perceived as "traditional" or "authentic."[22] Whisnat goes on to say that the concentration on this folk identity has deflected attention away from, as he says, "dominant structural realities, such as those associated with colonial subjugation or resource exploitation or class-based inequities." Here, "culture" provides a convenient mask for other agendas of change and throws a warm glow upon the cold realities of social dislocation" (Whisnat, p. 30). This romantic conception of mountain culture, as Whisnat sees it, has historically had a kind of obfuscating halo effect which made it difficult to see that changes in Appalachia during the early part of the century were related to the economic exploitation of the region.


Following Whisnat's line of thinking, however, the economic realities of the Appalachian condition have to do with developments in the "cold" realm of industrial development and not with handiwork, music and lore, the "warm" realm created to divert attention from social upheaval. I would argue that a more thorough political analysis of the Appalachian plight does not necessarily require a shift in attention back to the more obviously political issues and situations featured in the people's-struggle films. It can be found in the folk documents. Here, after having detailed the argument that the style of the folk documentaries implicitly denies politics, I want to change my course and look at the reverse possibility. When I say that a more radical political position can be "found" in the folk documents I do not mean that it is inherent in them. That would be to fall back into the same esssentialism which characterizes the belief that native culture resides out there in the mountains. Similarly, any notion that a style has a particular meaning once and for all also risks essentialism, although I do want to make the point that different aesthetic schools have been historically associated with philosophical positions and that we should not interpret stylistic choices as transparent carriers of content.[23]

We can "find" an economic analysis of the Appalachian situation in the folk documentaries if we make that analysis, since these portraits have the ingredients to begin with. This analysis can begin, for instance, by looking directly at the folk culture object to see how it has been taken for something other than what it is. The cultural artifact, whether hand-made chair, woven rug, or stone-ground flour also represents a product of labor, and, through exchange, the means by which the producer secures his living. Such productive activity as farming, herb gathering, hog butchering or dog breeding is not a sideline or an avocation for mountain people, although for the urban employed, this work may represent the kind of leisure activity they wish they had time to take up on weekends.

We can look at the Appalshop folk documents, then, as studies of the relation of humans to their product. Taken as a whole, the films provide material for lessons in alternative economics, especially since the principle of organization in these films is the step-by-step labor of constructing the folk object. Narrative commentary, pieced around the steps in construction, touches on the lives of the folk subjects. Their existence intersects with their work. The commentary usually starts with the story of how the craft or skill was learned and turns into autobiography. The speaker refers to marriage, children, jobs, natural disasters, or leaving home and returning from employment in the north or service in the armed forces. These life stories centered on a product are case studies in what might be called resistance economics, or arrangements implicitly antagonistic to capitalist economics.

WATERGROUND shows Walter Winebarger still operating his water-run grain mill outside Boone, North Carolina, according to the method of exchange set up by his father who always asked a low fee for custom-grinding grain. Asked in the film about the difficulty of growing grain to mill for others on such a small scale, Winebarger replies: "It's a living, I guess. I don't never have to go hungry as long as I can eat bread and milk or something."[24] Mountain economics works if everyone eats. Following these principles, farmers barter for the food they don't raise. As Lee Banks explains to his grandson who is shooting the film MOUNTAIN FARMER, his family didn't buy meat or lard for fifty years because they could exchange for it.

The barter system, an exchange of good for good and service for service, in some cases still works in the mountains. Lena Stephens, the midwife in NATURE'S WAY, describes how she receives money from only one-third of the mountain families when she delivers a baby; the rest pay in chickens, pigs, or groceries. The advantage of mountain economics is not only that it is more humane because it is designed to meet basic needs. It also makes social relations clearer to the participants in exchange.

Here I am abbreviating the labor theory of value which Marx laid out in its complexity in Volume I of Capital. The social inequities which characterize capitalist societies, from the arrangements of ownership to wage relations, have their origin in the way humans take their product to be something else. Once these products enter into exchange, the things themselves appear to be the concrete, source of value rather than the labor people expended to produce them.[25]

It now seems possible to make a connection between the romanticization of the folk product and strategies for social change in Appalachia based on regionalism. Adapting Paolo Freire's description of how social beings come to have critical consciousness, Helen Lewis compares regional consciousness with Freire's naive stage of political awareness, characterized, among other things, by "nostalgia for the past." Regional consciousness, associated with the middle class, cannot make the sharp analysis of power that class consciousness can. Thus, regional identity priorities may keep Appalachians from seeing the resemblance between their struggle and the struggles of other oppressed groups.[26] In understanding the Appalachian problem in terms of capitalist expansion, Lewis has been joined by other Appalachian Studies scholars such as Allan Batteau, who concludes his discussion of what is wrong with the energy-colony model of Appalachia with this observation:

"…to dwell, at too great a length, on the cultural distinctiveness of Appalachia, is to limit the political consciousness of the similarities between the domination of Appalachia and the other structures of oppression in America today."[27]


The newer class analysis of Appalachian society coincides with Shapiro's contention that region is an invention. Both of these I see as parallel developments in the intellectual crisis in Appalachian Studies to which I have referred.[28] Coincidentally I also find evidence of a crisis, let's say, a disenchantment with a romantic, apolitical view of folk culture, in HAND CARVED (1984), one of the most recent Appalshop folk documentaries. This disenchantment becomes evident in comparing HAND CARVED and the earlier CHAIRMAKER (1975).

CHAIRMAKER was the prototype for the first folk documentaries, especially in the way it created the perfect impression for the viewer that the making of the folk product has been witnessed from start to finish. The constructed space of the film as I have described it enclosed the mountaineer as perfect specimen from a lost age. The viewer's sense of being set back in time was jarred only slightly. The signs of changed times were minimal-the photograph of John Kennedy on the wall, the passing car, and the shot of Dewey Thompson's prices posted on a board: $15 for chairs; $25 for rockers.[29] We learn that it is a "hard day's work" to complete a chair, but the film does not help the viewer toward an analysis of the social and economic difficulty of living by means of one's handiwork.

The myth of traditional craft as a way to make a living is not as well sustained in HAND CARVED, the first Appalshop folk documentary to run to feature length. In structure, HAND CARVED seems similar to CHAIRMAKER. It follows the incremental construction of a piece of furniture, but this eighty-eight minute chronicle of Chester Cornett's design and execution of a magnificent rocker becomes much less absorbed than the earlier films in the folk culture myth.

For the audience, the illusion that they have observed every step taken in building the chair, that film time is completion time, is not easily maintained as in CHAIRMAKER. While Chester concentrates on the chair, the season turns from fall to winter, and neighborhood children come to trim his Christmas tree. He says that a chair takes two months to make, but the seasonal changes become clues to the viewer that this chair has taken longer.

HAND CARVED stands out from the other folk art films because it begins to put together a complete economic lesson for the viewer. The film's chronology gets divided by the trip from Pine Mountain, Kentucky, Chester's former home, to Cincinnati, Ohio, the route so many unemployed Appalachians have taken before him. He has moved here, he tells us, because he needs more business than he can find in Kentucky. Chester's price for making a chair is $489, and materials cost him over $100, he says. Considering what he must pay for rent, clearly Chester could not live without the armed-forces disability payment he jokingly calls his "old age pension." Toward the end of the film an abrupt stylistic change interrupts our concentration on the chair. From a close up of Chester making pegs, we see a dissolve to a high-angle shot of the Cincinnati expressway in winter. The camera zooms out further to show Chester's workshop home, hidden between taller brick buildings. For once, the significance of the folk craftsman in the modern world becomes represented according to scale. The shot is the only one of its kind in the film and an unusual flourish-a divergence from the consistent style of the Appalshop folk documentaries. Like the earlier folk documentaries, HAND CARVED begins with the promise that the dramatic pay off will be in the revelation of the hidden knowledge behind the hand-made wooden chair, the basis of the myth of indigenous culture, but the higher drama becomes the revelation of the discrepancy between the making of the chair and the social existence of the maker.

As we look closely at Chester's chair and his relation to it, we have the beginning of a lesson in how mountaineers have been exploited in terms of their labor power. The lesson of the chair is that as long as the human labor expended to make it does not seem obviously connected with the value it evidences or can command in exchange, the entire economic process — commodity production and the society organized to facilitate it — remains mysterious.

The corollary to this is that as long as the product is exchanged on the basis of usefulness, as in the barter economy which existed in the mountains for a hundred and fifty years, it will not seem a mystery to its producers. Marx's description of commodity fetishism serves as a summary and an illustration by analogy of how it is that we do not see how capitalist production is organized:

"It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will" (Marx, p.163).

Would that the inequitable economic arrangements we accept as ordinary in capitalist society appeared to us to be as strange as the wooden table standing on its head! Theoretically, following Marx, if one looks long and hard enough at the product, the perversely contradictory nature of commodity production will eventually appear.

An inkling of this economic perversity comes across with the help of Chester's commentary, much of which discusses the disparity between making the thing and its exchange. He once wove baskets which took him a week to complete and people offered him twenty-five or fifty cents apiece for them, he tells us. Finally, he recalls that his Grandpa Fouts spent his life building chairs and wood barrels and that when he died on welfare, the family did not have enough money to bury him.


The main thrust of my argument here has been that documentary realism as an aesthetic works in conjunction with the mystique of folk culture to represent the Appalachian social condition as "natural." In recent history, the belief that the natural world is the final arbiter of the real and true has participated in ideologically maintaining "things as they are," as against social change which requires seeing things anew. Thus, given the political implications of using a photographic style which denies its own politics, some alternative media makers and documentary theorists have argued that concerned artists should employ forms which call attention to technique and choice. In films and programs about the disenfranchised, viewers would then be politicized on the aesthetic as well as the social and economic levels.

While this critique has had its influence in academic circles, it has had little to no impact on the style of independent documentary film and video, particularly in the United States. As I have argued here, I think that it is possible to produce works in this style which do encourage political analysis, especially since the weight of the determination is on the side of the viewing context rather than on the side of the work. And yet, what does it mean for the makers, who have constructed a version of the world which embodies a point of view to go along with the dominant audience mindset, that the documentary they are seeing is privy to objective truth?

Finally I see two other practical consequences for using documentary realism in independently produced works. First, I think we have to consider the way lyric romanticism appeals to funding agencies. Since the agencies downplay social science, where issues of economic oppression and inequality might arise, folk culture projects often seem more suitable subjects for state and federal humanities grants. And these grants provide a substantial portion of the budgets for independent regional productions. These are most suitable subjects for state and federal humanities grants. And these grants provide a substantial portion of the budgets for independent regional productions. Finally, the most practical question of all needs to be raised. The documentary mystique, based on multiple takes and religious respect for realness in its most obscure and inaccessible habitat, is an extremely expensive mystique to cultivate.

Alternative filmmakers need not be hampered by "realism." The CBS-news-team myth that irrefutable reality gets captured by flying to the scene of the coalmine cave-in is too expensive to maintain. Synchronized sound equipment is difficult to drag through swamps and over mountains in search of live subjects. Since there is "no real world to grasp beyond human practice," as McGarry has argued, independent producers should be relieved to know that they don't have to take such pains to get the real world "in the can." It makes no difference whether the work is produced by two actors in the back yard or a full crew on location — both are constructed.

The idea that Appalachia has been "invented" should be good news to scholars in Appalachian Studies as well as to fllm/videomakers in the mountains, valleys, and coal fields. Whatever work has been done toward building the idea of "region" has not been in vain. Just as folk culture has been used to maintain power relations as usual, it can be made to resist.


1. Henry A. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1978), p. x.

2. Terence Hawks, Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Methuen, 1977), Chapter 6, contains a good introduction to the science of signs which calls our attention to the vehicles of meaning. See especially, pp. 145-147 for a short introduction to the work of Jacques Derrida which suggests the significance of his thought in relation to the new position on documentary.

3. For an example of this critical position, see Claire Johnston and Paul Willeman, "Brecht in Britain: The Independent Political Film (on THE NIGHCLEANERS)," Screen 16, No. 4 (Winter 1975-76): 101-118; rpt. and abridged in ed. Thomas Waugh, "Show Us Lfe": Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary (Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984), pp. 192-211.

4. See Tom Waugh, "Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries," in ed. Waugh, p. xvii, for an extremely clear statement of this new theoretical position.

5. The most frequently cited passage in support of this position, particularly in reference to the woman's movement documentary, is Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter Cinema," in Claire Johnston, ed. Notes on Women's Cinema (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 19.73), p. 28:

"the 'truth' of our oppression cannot be 'captured' on celluloid with the 'innocence' of the camera: it has to be constructed/manufactured."

6. An especially thorough discussion of the political debates around realism and modernism as they pertain to cinema can be found in Sylvia Harvey, May '68 and Film Culture (London: British Film Institute, 1978), pp. 69-82.

7. Harvey, p. 81, uses this term to elaborate certain French theories of a materialist cinema, and to distinguish them from Brechtian aesthetics. The term is originally from Fredric Jameson, "Reflections in Conclusion," Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1977), p. 206.

8. Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (New York G.P. Putman, 1917).

9. Personal interview with Elizabeth Barrett and Herb E. Smith, Whitesburg, Kentucky, August, 1979; For further on the history of Appalshop see the editors' interview with Herb E. Smith and Helen Lewis, "Appalshop and the History of Appalachia," Appalachian Journal 11, No. 4, 1984.

10. Only one narrative fiction film has been produced at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, out of more than thirty shorts and features shot between 1971 and 1983.

11. Although wizened grandfathers have usually been selected over grandmothers as the subjects of these films, there are important exceptions, among them QUILTING WOMEN and NATURE'S WAY. The latter features midwife Lena Stephens delivering twins, Etta Banks cooking a healing salve on her wood-burning stove, and Willie Westbrooks describing homemade flu and wart remedies used by blacks in the mountains.

12. Cinéma vérité is French documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch's translation of Kino Pravda, the newsreel series produced in the 1920s by Russian director Dziga Vertov. It has come to be associated with a very mobile style of camerawork, non-actors, long takes, and synchronous sound, which have become signifiers of "reality."

13. Bill Ferris, American Folklore Films and Videotapes: An Index (Memphis, Tenn: Center for Southern Folklore, 1976), p. ix, describes how these technologies made possible an increasingly "fuller record of folk voices and faces."

14. Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 240, refers to the magic of documentary, and likens the viewer's tendency to forget that cinema is a sign-system to being "spellbound."

15. Chuck Kleinhas, "Forms, Politics, Makers, and Contexts: Basic Issues for a Theory of Radical Political Documentary," in Waugh, p. 337.

16. I am indebted to Alan Lovell for this insight.

17. Gary Arnold, "Tribute to an Appalachian Mr. Chips," The Washington Post, 24 March, 1981, p. 32, col. 5. Arnold further praises HAND CARVED on the basis of the invisibility of its aesthetic:

"The camera is right where it belongs, the cutting crisp and astute, illustrating the self-description."

18. Most articulations of this position owe something to Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960) and the work of André Bazin. See especially What is Cinema? Vol. I, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967). For a good summary of the critique of realism and its implications for political documentary see E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York and London: Methuen, 1983), Chapter 10.

19. Nichols, p. 199, says that sound and image when synchronized

"…provide specificity as they root the argument in the visual and aural texture of a particular time and place."

20. Eileen McGarry. "Documentary, Realism & Women's Cinema," Women & Film 2, No. 7 (Summer 1975), p. 50.

21. Umberto Eco, "Articulations of the Cinematic code," in ed. Bill Nichols, Movies and Methods (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), P. 599, says,

"…even where we presume a vital spontaneity to exist, it is really swallowed up by culture, convention, system, code, and therefore, by extension, ideology. Semiology gets to work here with its own tools, translating nature into society and culture."

22. David Whisnat, All That Is Native and Fine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 260.

23. Jameson, p. 207, suggests the possibility that because of such shifts, the "natural" could come to have radical connotations:

"…it is certainly the case that a belief in the natural world is ideological and that much of bourgeois art has worked to perpetuate such a belief, not only in its content but through the experience of its forms as well. Yet in different historical circumstances the idea of nature was once a subversive concept with a genuinely revolutionary function, and only the analysis of the concrete historical and cultural conjuncture can tell us whether, in the post-natural world of late capitalism, the categories of nature may not have acquired such a critical charge again."

24. The study guide accompanying the film adds that the toll for grinding amounted to a percentage of the grist weight — one-eighth of its weight to be exact. Walter Winebarger's father would, however, grind grain toll free for families left fatherless.

25. See Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (1867; rpt. New York: Random House, 1977), pp. 164-165. For an elucidating discussion of Marx's understanding of how social relations are made clear or unclear to us see Henri Lefebvre, The Sociology of Marx, trans. Norbert Gutterman (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 60-63.

26. Helen Lewis, "Wales and Appalachia-Coal Mining, Culture, and Conflict," Appalachian Journal 10, No. 4 (Summer 1983): 351.

27. Allen Batteau, "Appalachia and the Concept of Culture: A Theory of Shared Misunderstandings," Appalachian Journal 7, Nos. 1-2 (Autumn-Winter 1979-1980): 28; David S. Walls and Dwight B. Billings, "The Sociology of Southern Appalachia," Appalachian Journal 5, No. 1 (Autumn 1977): 131-152, provide an overview of the various models that have been used to study Appalachia.

28. Herbert G. Reid, "Appalachian Studies: Class, Culture, and Politics II", Appalachian Journal 9, Nos. 2-3 (Winter-Spring 1982): 143.

29. The study guide for CHAIRMAKER adds that Dewey Thompson did not change his prices from 1930 to 1970. At one time, he went around the middle man who raised the prices for his chairs, and continued to sell rockers for $5.00 and chairs for $2.25.