Ordinary Americans star in ‘Rich Hill’
January 18, 2014
"Rich Hill," an entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a family project. Cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo are co-directors and co-producers of the film and it is set in, and very much about, the town where Tragos’ parents and both of their grandparents grew up: Rich Hill, Missouri.
Rich Hill has a population of around 1,400 people and the town’s website calls it "The town that coal built." The film looks at the lives of those living in the poor, rural community.
"We have strong connections to the town and community of Rich Hill," Tragos said. She said she grew up a few hours away from Rich Hill and spent summer and winter breaks there. "It was just a very, very important place for me growing up and also for Andrew."
"The town had changed a lot, certainly in my lifetime," she added. "I’ve seen businesses leave and the population dwindle, and of course my grandparents and Andrew’s grandparents [who lived there] died, and the town and the connection for us had changed and we really wanted to understand what was happening there.
"In large part, the Town had become increasingly impoverished and we wanted to understand what it was like to live there for those people now, the people that are left."
"Rich Hill" is a film about the lives of ordinary Americans, and that made a somewhat difficult pitch for Tragos and Palermo.
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"It’s not the sexiest documentary, at least on paper," Palermo said. "But we always felt like we were making it in a very interesting way, and giving it a really interesting treatment, and trying to make something really beautiful."
Palermo said that they had a hard time funding the film early on, but granting organizations "were interested and came out and supported us in a big way."
"We all have stories and I think sometimes the most beautiful and touching, and the thing that brings us together the most, is often what could be seen as ordinary — what could be seen as something that’s very regular," Tragos said, "But it is an experience that we all share.
"Our film, a lot of the context of it is families that are struggling in a rural community – and, some might say, world poverty. It’s very much an American story and it’s very much about growing up and that doesn’t have a huge, huge hook necessarily, but I think people, when they come see it, will feel resonance and I hope will be touched on a very personal level."
The filmmakers have family members that work for Rich Hill’s school district and helped find the three boys that the film follows.
"We often say that it really wasn’t perfectly evident to us that this is what we were doing until we went home with some of these boys and met their families and saw the way they were living and also saw how much love they have for one another and how willing they are to share that with people, us included," Andrew said.
Tragos and Palermo spent two years traveling "back and forth" to Rich Hill and filming.
"We really just brought our cameras to town and started talking to people," Tragos said. "But in particular, when we went home to ‘those houses’ – you know, the houses that didn’t have the freshly planted flowers out front, maybe there was a broken window — but we were welcomed inside and the people were incredibly warm.
"The boys were really excited too, you know, just really excited that we were following them around and they were going to be part of something like this," Andrew added.
Tragos and Palermo are especially excited for the film festival because the subjects of the film are flying to Utah for the first two screenings.
"I don’t believe that anyone who is coming has ever been on an airplane before," Tragos said. "It will be a life-changing experience. And we hope we’ll continue to be able to have them share in this film as it goes out in the world, because it is their story and that’s really a part of what Andrew and I wanted to do, was make this film from their perspective and have them be the authors of their story and really give them a dignity that we haven’t often seen with families and folks that are easy to dismiss."
"Rich Hill" is one of 16 titles in the U.S. Documentary Competition category at the Sundance Film Festival and will screen:
- Sunday, Jan. 19, at 9:00 p.m. at Temple Theatre, Salt Lake City
- Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 4 p.m. at the Redstone Cinema 2, Park City
- Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 3:45 p.m. at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
- Thursday, Jan. 23, at 11:30 a.m. at The MARC, Park City
- Friday, Jan. 24, at 3 p.m. at Sundance Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort
- Saturday, Jan. 25, at 3:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
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