Since 1969, Appalshop has chronicled life in the Appalachian mountains in all its beauty and ugliness.
The community film house has produced unflinching reports about the effects of coal mining, alongside loving portraits of Appalachian culture and music. As it celebrates its 40th Anniversary, MoMA will feature Appalshop as part of its Documentary Fortnight series this weekend.
Appalshop started as a War on Poverty jobs program in Whitesburg, Kentucky. As soon as the camera equipment arrived, the young filmmakers turned the camera on themselves. Its best-known documentary, Stranger with a Camera, looks back at the 1967 murder of a Canadian filmmaker. He was shot by a local man who had had enough of outsiders coming in to capture images of poverty. The film explores the history of stereotypes and exploitation that preceded the murder, telling the story both as a local and as a documentarian.
That tension of holding the camera while living in the community is at the center of all Appalshop films. Appalshop filmmakers shoot, edit, release, and then, they stay. Relationships change and stories develop around them. "If I do something here, and I think it's beautiful, but then someone from here sees it and thinks I've exploited us, then I have to live with that person,” says Willa Johnson, a 24 year-old Kentucky native and Appalshop filmmaker. “I have to see them everyday and for them to think I don't love this area."
It’s led to a remarkable collection of local stories. “I don't know of any other group that has been able to maintain itself for so long, with such integrity,” says George Stoney, a professor of documentary traditions at New York University.