A Conversation with Appalachian Filmmakers

“When I was nine years old, I saw this 48 Hours news program which made sweeping generalizations about people from my region. Like we were all to be pitied.…That show made me feel shame for being from eastern Kentucky.… That TV news program had a lasting impact on me. It was the first time I saw my community portrayed as poor white trash, a legacy that goes way back.”

Appalachian filmmakers Ashley York and Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Watch the video, below.

Ashley York, co-director of the documentary film Hillbilly, was in conversation with fellow filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (King Coal). They were the featured guests at the Wilma Dykeman Stokely Memorial Lecture on February 28, 2023.*

Both filmmakers grew up in small-town Appalachia — York in Pike County, Kentucky, and Sheldon in Logan, West Virginia. As young women, both aspired to be journalists, and both left their hometowns to attend their respective state universities. The state schools enrolled many students from out of state; and, for the first time, the young women found themselves being mocked for their accents.

Speaking of Hillbilly, Sheldon said, “There’s a piece about that in the film … the feeling of being both very proud of where you’re from, because it’s who you are and you’re rooted there … but also feeling this need to actually shed that to be accepted into a larger academic community.” “I’m still navigating that,” York said. Even though the University of Kentucky was a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from York’s home, she said it was “the greatest culture shock that I’ve ever experienced.” Even now, wherever she goes, her accent evokes the ingrained cultural stereotypes. “As Silas [House] says so beautifully in the film, it’s like being a perpetual immigrant.”

“Not everybody that grows up where we grew up gets to tell the story of the region. So what responsibility do you feel as someone who is doing that?” Sheldon asked. “I was so excited and passionate to make this film, but I was also very worried … I didn’t know what was going to happen,” York said. “If you’re a media maker, you have to be accountable to the people that you’re representing. And that’s the piece that has been lost in the documentation of Appalachia and Appalachian people.… We wanted to make a film that was character-driven, that really elevated the perspectives of people that you don’t ever hear about.”

To challenge Appalachian stereotypes, Hillbilly uses a combination of personal narrative, regional history, and conversations with Appalachian residents — including York’s own grandmother. York contrasted her empathetic treatment of the region with the typical documentary approach to Appalachia. “They don’t get out of the car, you know. They helicopter in the journalists.… They send the film crew out. The footage comes back, and the film crew says goodbye.”

“It takes courage and bravery to meet someone face-to-face and actually learn about their situation … We’re working in an industry of nonfiction that comes from a tradition of gawking,” Sheldon said. “Do you feel you’re pushing the limits of journalism documentary?” she asked. “Do you remember the moment when you felt journalism wouldn’t serve you to the full extent that creative nonfiction would? … What I learned is that in order to deeply get into the lives of someone, to document them, that often means you need to share meals or rely on one another in a way that journalistic ethics … would frown upon.”

York articulated the values she brought to her filmmaking: “We wanted to make a film that was beautiful … that did no harm. You know, that was rule number one. And that’s rule number one in my practice, period.… It was really important to us to involve the community.” The film became, in part, a portrait of York’s own family. And York herself became part of the story. “Really the demand of the film required that I step up and say, I am from this place.”

*The annual lecture is hosted by Friends of the Knox County Public Library and the John C. Hodges Society of the University of Tennessee Libraries. The lecture honors the late Wilma Dykeman Stokely (1920–2006), writer, speaker, teacher, historian, environmentalist, and long-time friend of the Knox County Public Library. Her papers are part of the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Tennessee Libraries. Speakers at the Wilma Dykeman Stokely Memorial Lecture represent a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and work, but all have a deep connection to one or more of Stokely’s passions: Appalachia, the environment, and racial and gender equity.