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Next week, we are off to IFP’s Spotlight on Documentaries, representing our work-in-progress, Rich Hill. It’s exciting and a bit daunting — as we haven’t shared much of anything with anyone yet. Neither of us relishes the notion of the “pitch,” but at the same time, we’ve been a two-person band, wearing many hats, for almost a year now, and we need to raise funds to complete production. We feel like we’re ready to bring on an executive producer, and, maybe even, to partner with a broadcaster. Will this be the week? We’re packing our bags, doing our research and, well, I guess you’d say, ready to make a deal.

Rich Hill, Missouri (population: 1461) is a former coal-mining town where our parents grew up. We remember summers with our grandparents learning to fish, walking through our uncle’s pecan grove, swimming in former strip-pits turned into ponds, and watching fireworks on the 4th of July. But even as children, we could see that something wasn’t quite right. Year after year, Park Avenue became more and more deserted as one business after another shuttered their doors. Buildings crumbled and the bricks stayed where they fell. Toddlers peered out of broken windows in homes that in any other town would have been condemned. Dogs, chained to trees, appeared to go unfed. Kids in the park looked rougher and rougher.

In August 2011, before we started filming, we talked a lot about the circumstances of life in Rich Hill today and about how we saw the film taking shape. We didn’t want to oversimplify. We knew we wanted to get past a certain stereotype — toothless, inbred rednecks who live off their welfare checks — to see what it really means to be poor in rural America. We also didn’t want to romanticize things — yes, life in a country town can be charming in its simplicity and the train at sunset can be beautiful and cinematic, but living without electricity isn’t a romantic choice for most families, and it means cooking on makeshift pots in the backyard and going without refrigerated food. Not have running water means no showers or flushed toilets, and a thirst you can never quench.

We started by meeting kids in the park and at the local school. They took us into their homes. We met parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents. We established strong relationships with five families in town, and since then, we have documented their waking before dawn, work and school life, fishing trips, secret hide-outs, going to bed at night, meals and birthday celebrations, emergency room visits, anniversaries of deaths, and even the spreading of ashes of their closest friends. The volunteer fire and police departments have allowed ride-alongs. We have captured heated City Council meetings, and idle moments at the cash register at the town’s one remaining grocery store. The Rich Hill School District has opened its doors, to film in classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and locker rooms. The Missouri Division of Youth Services has granted permission to film inside the Youth Development Center, to tell first-hand the story of the Missouri approach to juvenile justice, as well as the stories of the youths who live there and the employees who work there. For all the talk of teaching the impoverished how to balance a checkbook and manage food stamps so they last a month — there are children in Rich Hill who seem lost. They are born into these conditions, into families that have for generations lived in poverty.  They have no agency to “work the system” and they often are ashamed to reveal the true circumstances of their living conditions.

We’re often asked, “What’s so special about this town?” and our answer is always, “Nothing.” The story of Rich Hill could be told in hundreds of towns. American poverty is worse than ever. But we are not sociologists or political scientists — we are filmmakers and storytellers. So our job will be to zoom in as closely as we can, to capture the human story, through the eyes and experiences of our young subjects — to give voice to kids in peril and poverty living in a community like the many others that are not “so special” and, therefore, are easily overlooked.  And not surprisingly, what matters to these kids from this isolated place is what matters to us all: a roof over your head, parents who love you, a chance to dream about starting your own family one day. While our film reveals what it’s like to live with very little, it also explores the universal truths of growing up: we want to know our place and who we are; we want to be a part of a family, however broken and scattered it may be; and we want to be part of a community, even if it is falling apart. We want to belong.

In making this film, we have found that each of our subjects has a philosophy of survival and personal faith, as well as reserves of resilience and humor. They have trusted us to capture the complicated relationships between poverty and family bonds; between community pride and desperation; between having fun and just getting by. Even in the context of deep need, there is still the promise of transformation: the hope that cycles can be broken, that love sustains, and that everyone can start anew. 

In the next few entries, we’ll share our impressions and experiences, the culture shock of pitching in New York after filming in Rich Hill, and the lessons learned and inspiration gained at the conferences, screenings, parties and meeting-blitz at IFP’s Independent Film Week.

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