Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stranger With a Camera

Here are a couple more quotes dealing with the issue of cultural stereotypes and Appalachia. Please note that Shelby Lee Adams uses his family ties to Hobart Ison as a reassurance to Lecher County residents that he is "one of them," and not exploiting them. I am somewhat less convinced by this credential, as people often exploit their own. However, Ison and Adams have a lot to show us about the conflict between the "from here" and "come here" Appalachians.

"Appalachia, Democracy, and Cultural Equity" by Dudley Cocke of Appalshop's Roadside Theater
A story points to how confusing poverty is to those who are poor and those who try to empathize with it....As part of the national media's coverage of...[Johnson's War on Poverty], CBS produced "Christmas in Appalachia." Charles Kuralt narrated: "Up on the hill is the Pert Creek School. And up there on this one day is the only sign in this hollow that it is Christmas in Appalachia." The camera cut to half a dozen kids gathered around a coal stove singing "Silent Night." After the broadcast, a little town in Virginia named Appalachia received so many pairs of shoes, simply addressed to "Appalachia, U.S.A.," that....a shoe-burning party was proclaimed by City Council.

The events covered in Stranger With a Camera, 2000 deal with the results of such well-intentioned attention.

....On September 24, 1968, a Lecher County, Kentucky landowner, Hobart Ison, shot and killed National Film Board of Canada director Hugh O'Connor for filming a poor family on his land....filmmaker [Elizabeth] Barret uses...this incident to raise troubling ethical questions about identity, balance and media exploitation which no journalist...can afford to ignore.

Poverty was not new to Eastern Kentucky in 1968; absentee mine ownership, mechanization, unemployment, strip mining, decaying company towns had left more than half the population living below the poverty line. But it was the politically charged atmosphere of America in the 1960s that transformed these creeks and hollows into symbols of persistent poverty, a standing rebuke to the American Dream. Barret traces how a courageous expose by a local lawyer, Harry Caudill, generated front page articles in the New York Times, a BBC documentary and Charles Kuralt's classic documentary, Christmas in Appalachia....

Many locals agreed with Ison that the issue wasn't poverty but the right of outsiders to holdup another people's culture. Ultimately Ison served only a year in jail for his crime. In the 60's Ison's argument about outside agitators was already familiar in the South from White Citizens Councils attacks on the Civil Rights Movement. Today it resonates strangely with certain strands of post-modern cultural criticism....


Anonymous said...

Despite apparent commonalities between Canadian filmmaker Hugh O’Conner and Kentucky landlord Hobart Ison who possessed opposing view points, a brief introduction bloomed into a situation in which misinformation on both sides brought about a deadly cold-blooded murder. Back in the late 1960’s, Kentucky fell into hard times saw its cities’ demise. By no means was the entire state poverty-stricken or even many of the people; the land could not provide the many amenities people classify as signs of wealth, such as supplies and timber for new bigger houses. The hills were dotted with houses that had not had a fresh coat of paint in years, and were plagued with broken windows, but the people that lived in them had enough personal wealth to buy the things and food they needed to feed themselves. Unfortunately, throughout the 1960’s filmmakers and news reporters were attracted by the blemished state of Kentucky and were drawn there to film its decay. Films and newscasts began to portray the situation in a biased way; children were told to pose by their outhouses for pictures that would soon headline as ‘Our House’ or something along those lines. Some locals felt that this phenomenon would bring about a good result and change in the end, that it would get some truth about what was happening out and about how bad off the state of Kentucky had become. Unfortunately, many others like Hobart Ison believed the opposite. In the words of Elizabeth Barret, the director, saw that the land was “inundated with picture takers.” It was a “‘conundrum’ of postmodernism” which was never resolved (Daressa.) The two sides; the picture takers, many of whom had an inappropriate bias towards filming the worst possible conditions and leaving Kentucky in a bad light, and the locals, which an abundance believed like Hobart acted “in self-defense in order to avoid character assassination by the camera” (Daressa.)
Hobart Ison and Hugh O’Connor were very much alike even though they stood for different causes. Even from their very foundation, men who loved to travel, Hugh and Hobart would have probably made good friends. Although the filming hid the fact that not all of the local Kentucky residents were poor, it was made very clear that both Hugh and Hobart were not poverty-stricken and chose to live modestly.
Although these men were similar, their differences are what caused the sad ending. Hobart was a seventy-ish townsman with a tiny family from a tiny town in Kentucky. Hugh was a fifty-year-old socialite who wasn’t really there for his family from Canada. Many other differences existed, however the main and invoking difference was the view of media. Hugh was a filmmaker and storyteller that loved the informative nature of film and that it could help a state like Kentucky recover. Unfortunately, Hobart felt just the opposite. For Hobart, the feeling was put plainly by Elizabeth Barret, it was “iconography of Appalachia.” And even after Hugh was shot, Hobart still said “I had to do it. What would they have done to me picture-wise and all?” …
The episodic event, which coagulated from an elaborate misunderstanding, synthesized into various additional dilemmas. Hobart Ison set off a chain of events that latter became a big debate between what Lawrence Daressa would classify as “ethnographic” and a world divided “between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, observed and the observers” (Daressa.) Several attemptes were made to get a fair trial for the murder of Hugh were not successful, however the trial that did occur consisted of Jurymen and women who had already taken a stand on one side of the issue. Unfortunately, the people of the jury agreed more or less with the lawyer’s feelings, “He did the right thing.” Susan Laurie of British Columbia, Canada told the Independent Television Service about her boyfriend who grew up in the Appalachian area. Susan knows that the jurisdiction of Hobart Ison was the wrong approach since Hobart Ison had been a known offender of shooting his gun off when he was angry. “My boyfriend and his brother were shot at by Ison when they were just boys (for) throwing rocks at one of Ison's chickens. My boyfriend's sister witnessed the shooting, was appalled by it and will not speak about it to this day…” She believes that “if we all shot people for such stupid reasons, we would all be dead.” Susan took into account that “Ison said himself he was just worried about how it would make HIM look, (and) nothing about protecting the image of the Appalachian people.” Susan concluded by mentioning his image to the actual townspeople was that he was “feared as an evil and dangerous man” I agree with Susan’s last remark; “we have law enforcement, they should have been called in by Ison (to take care of the filmmaker if he posed such a big threat), but he did things his way, (which was) not the legal right way.” One year in jail was an insult to O'Connor's family. I hope they have found peace.

Anonymous said...

Hobart did the right thing.