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Recap: Rich Hill

Rich Hill, Missouri, a once thriving coal town home to 1,400 people, is mined out. Like hundreds of other small towns across America, Rich Hill has experienced great losses in its industry, population, and the resources that went with them. But in the trenches of deep poverty, the town’s next generation holds on to the hope for change.

Through the eyes of Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three of the town’s young residents, 2014 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Rich Hill takes an intimate look inside the homes and lives of small town, rural America, where isolated kids confront heart-breaking choices, parents struggle to survive, and, despite it all, families cling to the promise of equal opportunity and dreams of a better life some day.

In a screening and conversation hosted by New America NYC, New America’s Asset Building Program, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Tracy Droz Tragos, the film’s director, mentioned that, as someone originally from Rich Hill, a central objective of the film was to share the stories of families from their town in the spirit of empathy. “It’s not a film that has a specific ask at the end, but we hope you’re moved, and perhaps moved to action.”

The choice to feature three children, Tragos explained, meant that their stories would be harder to dismiss. If parents had been featured, it’s likely they would be racked with blame for “having an inferior moral compass, for making bad choices, for living off the system,” all typical excuses that are pointed out as why families become impoverished.

Renée Wilson-Simmons, the director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, echoed the power of centering children’s stories in depicting the issue of poverty, but not at the exclusion of understanding the impacts on their parents. Wilson-Simmons says it’s easy to fall into the logic that “children are poor through no fault of their own, and so they deserve our support, but parents are poor because of the decisions they made, and so must deal with their situations.” The result of those judgements is that society comes to characterize poor people being “lazy, culturally deficient, criminally inclined, financially inept. And that leaves children in a horrible position. Children do better when families do better.”

The film actively chose to not include presenting a collection of statistics and formal studies on poverty so as not to impede the power of the storylines of the three boys in the film. Reid Cramer, director of New America’s Asset Building Program, appreciated that strategy, noting that “a list of socioeconomic indicators” doesn’t always tell the full story. “It’s not just about income, about not having money” but about the larger challenges that emerge from not having money, challenges that “disrupt their lives, their trajectories, their aspirations, their dreams.”

Fifteen-year-old Andrew Jewell, one of the star subjects of Rich Hill, said the film served as a tool for connecting to Appachey and Harley, the other boys the film featured, and was a way to connect to others in his community by realizing the shared experiences in their stories. “After seeing the film, the stories behind our families, we all became good friends.”

Creating the film, Jewell says, was as much about learning about himself as it was about the others. Throughout and since the filming, he’s developed a new outlook: “Life’s going to throw you obstacles. All you have to do is jump over the obstacles, look towards a brighter future, and accept the blessings. With the blessings and hard work, your goals can be achieved.”