What's In A Name?: Sundance's Three "American" Docs
by Amy Goodman
In his book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered America, Neal
Gabler writes that the American people "increasingly have come to regard
their own lives as entertainment." Proof of this statement can be found
in this year's Documentary Competition at Sundance. Three
feature-length docs, "American Hollow," "American Movie," and "American
Pimp" are set to premiere this week, offering three radically different
portraits of radically different Americans, and calling the definition
of "American" into question.
The world inhabited by the isolated, impoverished Appalachian family
profiled in "American Hollow," "seems a strange echo of our American
heritage," according to Rory Kennedy, award-winning producer-director of
such social issues docs as "Fire in Our House" and "Women of Substance."
The Bowling family, currently consisting of around forty members, has
lived in the same hollow in Saul, Kentucky for over 100 years, surviving
off their land and paltry welfare checks when they come. In the hollow,
family and hard work reign supreme.
Kennedy's take on her subject is refreshing since the subject has
usually been portrayed as a source of humor, fear, and disdain in
American popular culture (see: "Deliverance," "The Beverly Hillbillies"). To Kennedy, the Bowlings are part of an endangered American
species who represent some of the nation's oldest traditions and values.
She believes, however that a lack of jobs and limited welfare support
will force this increasingly impoverished people and their way of life
into a homogeneous, gentrified, modern American culture. Too often, she
says, "People like the Bowlings, are gradually lured down from the hills
to find work at modern malls and fast-food restaurants." Asked to define
the word 'hollow,' Kennedy begins with a physical description of a
ravine between two mountains. "Also," she says, "maybe it's America
that is hollow, pursuing modernization and these new technologies, and
moving away from family and nature."
With "American Pimp," the Hughes brothers, creators of the critically
acclaimed urban dramas "Menace II Society" (1993) and "Dead Presidents"
(1995), tackle the traditions, values, and lifestyles of a different
kind of American outsider, the black urban pimp. Despite the fact that
this pimping population is barely recognized by mainstream American
culture, Allen and Albert Hughes stress that these people and their
vocation are "strictly an American thing."
The Hughes use extended conversations with around thirty pimps across
America, ranging in age from mid 20