In the summer of 2011, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, first cousins, both filmmakers, sat in an idling car at LAX, trying to come up with a project. Talk turned to Rich Hill, their family's hometown in southwestern Missouri. "It was actually a conversation about our Uncle Paul, who still lives there and our love of him and, by extension, our love of this town," Tragos says. "But it was also the acknowledgment that it's a hard place. It clicked."
Three years later, their astonishing documentary, Rich Hill, has opened nationally after winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. A portrait of three Rich Hill teenagers — Appachey West, Harley Hood and Andrew Jewell — and of a tiny, former coal-mining town with nothing left to offer them, the film turns an intimate, unsentimental eye on adolescence and grinding rural poverty. Narration, statistics and prescriptions are absent; instead, the tender, angry, hopeful teenagers tell their own stories. The boys are Rich Hill's authors. "This wasn't going to be a social issue documentary that wore its agenda on its sleeve," Tragos explains. "If you insert yourself, it becomes more about me or about Andrew — 'here, we're coming in and making a film.' We wanted it to be immersive. We wanted to put you into their head space."
The film weaves scenes of agrarian beauty with harrowing moments of deprivation. Andrew, 13, believes God has a plan and stoically endures move after move as his father searches for work. The family lives in a series of threadbare rentals where their possessions are almost too few to register. Chain-smoking Harley, 15, observes darkly, "Anything can trigger me…the smallest, slightest thing," but he also pauses sentimentally to play Akon's "Locked Up" on his small boom box; it's a track he and his incarcerated mother both love. Appachey, 12, threads barefoot through a small, dirty yard; in the background, his house appears to be melting into the soil. At lunchtime, he fills a tray, then sits alone at an empty table not eating for one long, angry moment.
When Palermo and Tragos flew to Rich Hill at the end of 2011, they still weren't entirely sure what their film would be about. "The families I grew up around were portrayed in ways I never found very respectful," Palermo says. "We started kicking around the phrase 'to demystify poverty,' the idea [being] that people need dignity. But we weren't really certain what we were going to do until we met Appachey. We both were so heartbroken by him and interested in him. There was poetry in the way he spoke. Towards the end of the first trip, it was pretty clear where we were headed."
Speaking to Rolling Stone last week, Appachey recalls that meeting in the school gym; "Actually, they had to talk me into talking. 'Cause I was mad that day and I wanted a cigarette really bad and I was in school and I was like, 'I don't want to'. Eventually I started talking."
The filmmakers added Harley — asleep on the couch when Palermo and Tragos came to interview his cousin — and Andrew when they ran across him in the park. "At first Andrew was kind of posturing a lot for us and being kind of the tough guy," Tragos remembers. "But there was something about him that we were drawn to and we went home with him. We wanted to be with him more because he was so loving with his sister and with his mother, and the tough guy things dropped immediately."
What was it like to let two strangers document everything for more than a year? Harley, who reveals a shattering secret halfway through the film, recalls,"I was kind of scared at first. But I had talked it over with my grandmother. And what they were there for was to get the true story about my life. We had discussed going ahead and letting them hear the story of my life. We went ahead and did that."
Andrew [Jewell] remembers other tensions: "Tracy and Andrew both thought there was going to be complications with us three boys, because they knew me and Harley didn't get along very well. Honestly, Harley and I were having a feud, a little. I didn't know his story, he didn't know mine. All I knew was he had an attitude and whenever people have attitudes, I have attitudes. I mean, who doesn't?"
For 18 months, Tragos and Palermo returned to the small town every five or six weeks to shoot, using Facebook to stay in touch. "There would be a cell phone, then there would be no cell phone minutes and there'd be no way to reach anybody," Tragos says. "We had times where we would go expecting to be able to be with all of them and Andrew had moved." One of those Jewell family moves is documented in the film; their return to Rich Hill from a failed new start in Thayer, MO, is a heartbreaker.
Regardless of the location, the filmmakers sought an intense intimacy. To achieve it, Palermo shot the boys and their families in tight close-up. "I wanted to keep the distance between us as minimal as possible. As much as I could I was on the ground, all over the ground shooting up. Anytime we were still, I would be down or squatting and trying to keep up with them while squatting. I wanted them to look like heroes, that they could take on the world."
Though there are a number of starkly beautiful tracking shots - one of the deserted town center, another of a John Deere tractor working a field — Rich Hill, MO is placed almost in the background. It could be any one of a thousand towns across the country where the jobs have dried up and the American Dream will never come true for you, no matter how hard you work.
What Rich Hill won't let us look away from are its inhabitants. "Some of our earliest notes were about focusing on families who were struggling," Tragos says. "We focused on kids because they're harder to dismiss. You can't say that they deserve the circumstances they find themselves in. We hoped that empathy would extend to their families. There was some fear that we might offend people who felt we were focusing on just the hard stuff. That wasn't what we wanted to do, but we didn't want to sugarcoat it. What we were seeing wasn't easy to sugarcoat."