A delicate blend of unlikely poetry and stark contemporary reality, this is a simple but insightful delve into a self-aware and gently mournful man living on a remote Kentucky mountain deep in the Appalachians. His relationship with the land and his family’s history with it is at the core of The Last Hillbilly, an intimate film from co-directors Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkou that both celebrates and mourns an increasingly rare way of life.
Of course, the word ‘Hillbilly’ is often seen as a derogatory term for often poorer people who dwell in the rural mountainous areas of the US –primarily the Appalachians and the Ozarks – and is rich in terms of media stereotypes. Brian Ritchie – who is the film’s ‘last Hillbilly’ – is quick to acknowledge the term, but with a sense of irony and reflection.
The film’s opening reflects the poetical stance of the film as ominous music overlays Ritchie’s narration. “Summer 2016,” he says, “the time of the wild roses when the air flows thick with perfume” before talking about poisoned deer dying in the local river. With a certain sadness he talks about his children while also going through the history of the land, admitting how it was taken from Native Americans. For him the tale of the land is “a culture bound together in an identity.”
For him over three generations his community has veered from working the land, to coal mining and now to the young leaving the region. The film see him visit the graveyard where his family is buried but mostly blends his musings with footage of is his children spending time rambling through the woods; exploring barns; splashing in the streams and lead a simpler life. As one young son comments:” I’m bored, bored, bored-ity board, bo-oard, bored,”while Ritchie also admits they have little to do but sleep and walk.
At the centre of the film is a section he and the kids gather round a fire and he proceeds to tell them about his youth and how things have changed on the mountain…plus he manages to drop a piece of wood on the foot of one child, which turns into a metaphor about how you have to grow up tough. Home-spun philosophy runs at the heart of Ritchie’s musings on what it is to grow-up with and embrace the mountain life. His poetical reminiscings are tinged with sadness (especially when he talks about the brother he lost) as he talks about the winds of change impacting on Kentucky and the US.
As he says ironically:” We are responsible for Trump and all that mess.” Yes, Confederate flags fly over a graveyard and there is discussion about how workers were forced into the coal mines, but at heart this a film about people rather than politics.
But it is his voice blended with the striking soundtrack by Jay Gambit that gives the film its solemn and moving voice. Directors Bouzgarrou and Jenkou smartly don’t resort to simplistic lush footage of the landscape, and primarily spend their time with the youngsters. They favour static cameras and a modest sense of cinematic ambition, but this delve into a modern-dayHillbilly lifestyle is always engaging and thoughtful.
Director: Diane Sara Bouzgarrou, Thomas Jenkoe
France-Qatar, 2020, 80mins
Production: Films de Force Majeure
International sales: The Party Film Sales
Producer: Jean-Laurent Csinidis
Cinematography: Thomas Jenkoe
Editor: Theophile Gay-Mazas
Music: Jay Gambit
With: Brian Ritchie
(first published in Business Doc Europe)