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Sundance Award-Winning Rich Hill Director Tracy Droz Tragos on the Injustice of Rural Poverty and How Motherhood Can Open Doors to Documentarians

Sundance Award-Winning Rich Hill Director Tracy Droz Tragos on the Injustice of Rural Poverty and How Motherhood Can Open Doors to Documentarians

 “People expect me to have a better future than I
do. I don’t know what to do anymore.” So declares a twelve-year-old boy less
than five minutes into this film, and at once we are ruthlessly pulled
into a place that is both a trap and a home. 

Set in the small town of Rich
Hill, Missouri, a once prosperous community turned to rubble, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Troz Palermo’s Sundance award-winning documentary
follows the daily lives of three boys and their families — Andrew, Harley, and
Appachey — all of them suffering from the staggering effects of poverty. 

In
this section of America’s agricultural heartland, buildings crumble and low
income is commonplace. With a population of 1,393, Rich Hill is a town where
families struggle to keep roofs over their heads, a mother waits out a prison
sentence after an astounding failure of the justice system, and single parents
struggle to sustain themselves. Yet despite the seemingly unending hardships,
the boys nurture their dreams of the future while navigating the fragile
tightrope of adolescence in a birthplace where survival is uncertain from day
to day.

Captured with unflinching honesty, Rich Hill is
both a heartbreaking coming-of-age saga and a searing revelation of a wrenching
aspect of rural life, illuminating the faces behind the statistics of poverty
and making their voices heard.

Women and Hollywood spoke with Tragos about her personal connection to Rich Hill, giving voice to the voiceless, and
the difficulty of balancing filmmaking with motherhood.

WaH: What drew you to
making this film?

TDT: Rich Hill was my
father’s hometown and a place that I loved visiting as a child. But over the
years, I’d lost a connection and wanted to go back and understand what it was
like to live there now. Soon after we started filming, it became less of a
meditation on a pile of bricks – and more urgent. We saw how many families were
living on so very little and truly struggling, [and] we wanted to give them a voice.

WaH: As someone who grew up in a small Missouri
town close to Rich Hill, the surroundings and stories are very familiar to me.
Your father was raised in Rich Hill. How did knowledge of the town influence
your perspective and approach?

TDT: Rich Hill was a second home to me – I had
known much of the community my entire life. I have always had a real love of
the place – not just for the beauty of its rural setting, but also the warmth
and trust of the people. At the same time, I also straddle an insider/outside
status – so I could see things from a different perspective – and some of the
harsh realities were perhaps more apparent to me.

WaH: There’s a strong focus on the mothers of
the three boys. What do you think your perspective as a woman brought to the
film?

TDT: My perspective as a woman and a mother
allowed us a certain access we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I connected with
the moms in the film – we swapped stories about raising kids, we connected
emotionally – and that was part of why they extended their trust to come into
their homes and film. It also allowed me to cut past some of the posturing with
the boys. They saw me as a mother figure, and knew I wasn’t so interested
in their tough-guy act.

WaH: What made you decide to tell a story about
rural American through the eyes of adolescents?

TDT: We chose to tell the story from the eyes of
kids because we thought it would be harder to dismiss them – to say that they
deserved to be in their circumstances because of their own moral failings or
desire to “live off the system.” We hoped audiences would then extend whatever
empathy or connection they felt with the kids to their parents – who were not
so long ago kids themselves.

WaH: How did spending time with the boys and
their families impact your own life?

TDT: In many ways – it was hard work and
sometimes intensely stressful. There were also a lot of joys and good times. Each
boy taught me so much. I have been incredibly affected by
Andrew’s optimism, Harley’s humor, and Appachey’s forgiveness. I am touched by
the parents – who struggle to provide for their kids in very basic ways – and
who became parents when they were just kids themselves. My relationship with
the boys and their families is ongoing – and I hope will be lifelong.

WaH: What were some of the biggest
challenges/difficulties in getting this made?

TDT: Staying in touch with the families in our
film was a big challenge. For the most part, we relied on Facebook, which the
kids in our film accessed at school or at the library (free wi-fi). Cellphones
were always running out of minutes, so that was never terribly reliable. Sometimes
we would just have to show up and reconnect. More than once, Andrew’s
family had moved, and we wouldn’t be able to visit him. We had to make a lot
of plane-ticket changes at the last minute.

As with any independent endeavor, there are also
financial challenges. I personally funded our first year of production on
credit cards – and that was a huge investment for me to make. Eventually, we
were fortunate to have the support of amazing organizations, such as Sundance,
MacArthur, Cinereach, IDA’s Pare Lorentz, and two amazing EPs who believed in
the film and its potential.

Finally, for me, there was a work/life balance
challenges. I have two daughters – and I was obsessed with this film and worked
super long hours. I felt a strange tension of making a film about families and
struggling to maintain a relationship with my own.

WaH; Do you have any advice for aspiring female
filmmakers?

TDT: It’s not an equal playing field, so look
for breaks and seize opportunities whenever you can. Ultimately, greenlight
yourself. Don’t wait for someone to validate your worth and your talent –
validate it by going out and confidently doing the work, with whatever means
you have and build a community and team around you. 

Independent filmmaking is often like a start-up
– and one has to have an entrepreneurial spirit and believe in yourself before
anyone else will follow. The producer’s dilemma is make your film a runaway
train that investors and funders can’t help but support – even when secretly
you may feel stalled out and broke.

The bottom line is that you don’t take
“no” for an answer. A rejection is often an invitation to start a
conversation.

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