Film Focus: Stranger with a Camera (2000)

The FilmFocus trailer series is part of AoTR’s rural cinema project, SMALLSCREEN.

By Jessie Sims

Stranger with a Camera has been recommended on this blog before. It’s an excellent film, and I hope some of you have the pleasure of discovering it now for the first time. When Savannah Barrett, Art of the Rural’s Program Director, told me about this documentary she said that everyone interested in rural media representation should watch it. I absolutely agree.

The film revisits a murder that took place in Jeremiah, Kentucky in 1967, when a local man, Hobart Ison, shot and killed National Board of Canada film director Hugh O’Connor. O’Connor was working on a project documenting the variety of American experience called US. When Ison shot him, he was filming poor tenants on Ison’s land. At this point, during the War on Poverty, deeply impoverished Appalachia had become a symbol of what was wrong with America. Ison thought that O’Connor’s images would tie him to or blame him for these conditions. It shocked the outside world when many residents of Jeremiah stood behind Ison at trial and echoed his justifications. Wanting to explore the circumstances that led to this tragedy and to understand her community’s response, Jeremiah native and filmmaker, Elizabeth Barret made Stranger with a Camera.

Focusing on this fatal meeting, Stranger with a Camera tackles the larger question of how media representations affect the people that they document. Barret strives to respect, and even to reveal, the subject’s complexity. She shares some of her own experiences with images of Appalachia — experiences that let to her decision to pick up a camera.

As a teenager at Appalshop, Barret discovered films of local culture. River baptisms. Musician circles. Scenes she had probably witnessed countless times first-hand. But watching them projected on a screen was different. She was, “hearing singing that I had never really listened to before.” Barret says, “Appalshop films were showing my place back to me in a way different from the CBS programs.” This difference in the way her home was portrayed by others changed how she related to that place. And her career of making and thinking about Appalachian images began.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000. Fifteen years later, it’s seen as a foundational, cinematic exploration of documentary ethics. The DVD is available for purchase in Appalshop’s store. (hyperlink) http://store.appalshop.org

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