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FILM KITCHEN

Appal Harvest

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In the hills of Appalachia, not far from towns named Jeremiah, Redfox, Eolia and Premium, sits Whitesburg, Kentucky. Growing up in the '60s in that town of 1,500, Herb E. Smith was keenly aware of the era's political turmoil -- and also of how he and his neighbors, the small-town people of coal country, were viewed by a nation that watched The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres on television. But there didn't seem much Smith could do about that. In Whitesburg, there didn't seem much to do, period. "We were all hanging out on the bridge in the main street of town, counting how many Fords would go by, how many Chevies," he recalls.

Then, Smith says, "It was like a spaceship landed." In September 1969 a man named Bill Richardson arrived with a carload of film cameras and the earliest, and bulkiest, portable video cameras. Richardson had come south as part of the federal War on Poverty. He said that there was a narrow range of people -- geographically, racially, socioeconomically -- behind America's cameras, and that Smith and his neighbors could help widen it.

That was the start of Appalshop, a nonprofit media arts collective that stages plays, runs a community radio station and a record label, and makes films and videos, all to promote the culture and issues of the region. Like that founding mission, Smith is still with Appalshop. The Ralph Stanley Story, his new portrait of the bluegrass great, highlights the Feb. 11 installment of the Film Kitchen screening series, along with Richardson's 1971 short Woodrow Cornett: Letcher County Butcher, and Anne Lewis Johnston's 1991 video Fast Food Women, a look at the regional impact of the contemporary service industry.

Smith kept making films while attending Vanderbilt University and later made a statement by simply returning home: He says 150 of his 180 high school classmates split town within days of graduation. Smith had planned to leave, too, but making films about his hometown gave him a new appreciation for it. "We got to know the place in a way we didn't previously," he says. "I grew to really like the people and the physical beauty of the place, and I felt like I had a role here."

Smith has spent the past 30 years shooting documentaries about everything from local artists to black lung disease. His and other Appalshop films have screened on PBS and around the world; the group is probably best known for Stranger With a Movie Camera, a 2000 documentary by Elizabeth Barret (Smith's wife) about the 1967 shooting death of a young Canadian who visited the area to make a film about poverty.

Much of the world got to know Ralph Stanley from the popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack, but Smith's interest dates to the '60s, when Stanley would play and a teen-age Smith would come listen. Years later the filmmaker wanted to know how Stanley -- who was born about 20 miles from Whitesburg -- kept his authenticity through five decades behind a mike. "This isn't a music he got from the records," says Smith. "It's a music he got from living that life. That's pretty rare, a sense of somebody who really gets it from the gettin' place."

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