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Interview with Herb E. Smith

Creator of over 90 video documentaries
about the Appalachian people and culture

Appalachians Speak for Themselves

Whitesburg, Kentucky

Herb E. SmithHerb E. Smith is the creator of over 90 video documentaries about the Appalachian people and culture, Herb E. Smith is also a co-founder of Appalshop, the internationally known arts and education center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Access to the Tube - Learning to Communicate

We thought the initial problem was access to the tube. If you could get your hands on one of these cameras, you could be as powerful as those CBS producers who were coming into our place and making films about us. These War on Poverty pictures were being made in our homeland, and were then appearing on our television sets after the New York-based producers had digested us . Well, they were just kind of shocking to us.

But then what we found was that our goal of getting our hands on equipment just gets you to square one. You've also got to learn how to use this language. Any good writer learns how to put sentences together, then make paragraphs, and then learns how those paragraphs fit together into something that has some punch to it. It's not something that you know from birth, or that you somehow can do as soon as you get your hands on the tools. It's a learning process of the ability to actually use the tools to communicate.

How was Appalshop formed?

In Motion Magazine: How was Appalshop formed?

Herb E. Smith: I was a high school student, a 17-year-old kid here in this town when the Community Film Workshop opened up. I was a kid sitting on the bridge watching the cars go by, trying to figure out how many were Chevrolets and how many were Fords. In those days, we didn't have that many foreign cars, that was in '69. It'd be even harder to figure out what makes are now.

We heard about this place that had this filmmaking equipment, and we just went up and started playing with it. Videotaping basketball games. You know, everybody's got a camcorder nowadays, but in those days, just to get your hands on one of these cameras and to see somebody you knew on the television set was a charge. It was shocking.

We started playing with this equipment, and we found out that there were 12 community film workshops set up throughout the country, funded by the lead agency in the so-called War on Poverty, a federal agency called the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). OEO had funded a New York-based nonprofit called Community Film Workshop Council. Community Film Workshop Council had then set up these film workshops. There was one in Chicago, one in New Haven, one in Washington, D.C. I think there was one in Puerto Rico and there was one in Santa Fe for Native Americans. We were the Appalachian film workshop.

The film workshop just arrived in my home town. My dad worked in the coal mines. Both my grandfathers were miners. One of them had moved out of the coal fields when the jobs plummeted in the '50s, but my other grandfather's still here in the county. For me, it was something that happened.

It was very exciting. It was an interesting time in the sense of a lot of talk, a lot of ideas were on the table about what kind of country we really are. I think America during the late '60s, early '70s, particularly, began to understand that we were more than what we thought we were in the '50s.

This country is more diverse, more complex than Ozzie and Harriet. Our Amos and Andy view of Black people didn't cut it. What happened was that cities started going up in smoke. Locally, there were unemployed miners who were burning tipples in the Appalachian coal fields. (A tipple is the place where the coal is taken from the mines and put into the railroad cars. It's a central place. If you want to stop coal mines, one thing you can do is knock out the tipple and that mine can't get coal into the railroad cars. It's a bottleneck of the operation.)

There was a group called the Roving Pickets. They decided that it was their job to shut down the mines. The situation was that you had literally tens of thousands of miners finding themselves in incredibly difficult straits in the late '50s and early '60s. I'm talking about edge of starvation. The kinds of economic difficulties that people thought were over with in the United States after we came out of World War II. But it wasn't, not here. And, in addition to this militancy in the coal fields, there were literally millions of people fleeing. I think there's no other word than economic refugees for the people who were arriving in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus, all the Midwest. The growing industrial heartland was being flooded by all of these people from the coalfields. It was kind of tricky times.

It was hot. I remember when I was in the first or second grade, the National Guard camped out in our schoolyard. We couldn't go out and play because the National Guard was here just to try to deal with the pickets, the hot times in the coal fields. It was very clear to me. You know how you are when you're like a 6- 7-year-old kid and there's all these soldiers walking around your schoolyard.

'58, '59, sometime around '60. It was hot here. You didn't have the food stamp problem. You didn't have Medicare. You didn't have Medicaid. There were beggars on the street, people trying to come to grips with this horrible position they found themselves in.

In Washington and other places people were saying, why is this happening? Maybe we don't get it. Maybe we don't understand what their problem is. If we could put some cameras in their hands, maybe they'd tell us about it. (Laughter).

I really do think there was a sense of it in the LBJ years, '64 to '68. Anyway, this agency, the OEO, began to say that part of our problem was that the media is such a narrow sliver of the broad range of people in this country, If we could begin to get more diversity in the media itself it would be a healthy thing. That was part of the impetus for the Community Film Workshop Council being funded by OEO. There was also some ideas about vocational education. We came along right at the cusp of that --; around when Nixon was elected in '68. Appalshop started in September of '69, 8 or 9 months after he came into office. Right at about the time that his people were beginning to grab ahold of the reins of government and were starting to rein in some of these things that they found as carry-overs from the Johnson years.

Almost immediately after Appalshop started, there was this sense that all of this talk about community-based expression, they aren't so interested in. They're more interested in the vocational education side of things. So if you all want to make films about strip-mining, if you all want to make films in conjunction with poor people's organizations, then we can't allow OEO funds to continue to go to these community film workshops. But if you have a day on film stocks, a day on lenses, light meters, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, then that's okay. Right? It meant we gotta do a day on film stocks and so forth. Anyway, the point is that it was right in this transition time that the federal administrations were changing, and the idea of what CFWC was going to be about was changing at the same time.

Well, for us, the new direction made no sense -- the idea of vocational education in film and television when there was no television station, no film industry. The only thing that made sense was this other part, which we grabbed ahold of, you know, as kids. We said we like that idea. We formed our own nonprofit organization and split with CFWC. It was a pretty crazy thing to do for 17 or 18-year-old kids. There were 8 of us, the first summer of 1970, when we formed our own corporation.

Another thing for us, as Appalshop, was we said we don't want to be a part of this out-migration thing that's happening. We don't want to be another agent that's training people to leave this place. If we're going to make a go of it here, we have to figure out some way where we can, in effect, create jobs for ourselves in this place. We don't just want to be a training center that punches people's tickets for them to get on the next bus out. We tried to figure out how do you make a go of business? How this country's economy works? And even today it is a very difficult thing to figure out. Most of the economy is assumed, by working people, to be something that's laid on you by people in power, right? You get jobs from people who give you jobs. (laughter) rather than saying, 'we're going to create our own jobs and we're going to figure out how we do that'. It's not an obvious path to be on.

So I remember, when we were first on our own, we were just winging it. We didn't know how to keep books, and we had to pay people. We didn't know about withholding money from their checks. 'I think we're supposed to withhold money, but where do you give the money after you've withheld it?' (Laughter) So eventually, after a few months, this guy from the state tax pecks on our door and he says, 'Hey, you all been withholding money from the salaries?' And we said, 'We've been looking for you! What are we supposed to do here?' (Laughter) In general, we were just learning how to do this thing.

The money to start Appalshop

In Motion Magazine: Where'd you get the money to start Appalshop?

Herb E. Smith: Well, we were hustlers. We weren't spending a lot of money. It wasn't like people were getting paid huge salaries. We were just scraping by. I think that an interesting, important part of it is that the ideas of what we could do were more important than economic security.

Coalmine near Clinchco. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeOf course everybody needs money, but when you're 17 or 18 years old, -- we were just living on cornbread and soup beans. When push comes to shove, you can live on a fairly small amount of money. It's possible to, if you gear down. It's your own self-expectations that are the biggest challenge. You can believe that or not, but that's where I am. Especially in those days, especially in the earliest part, there was a lot of just doing without money. We geared down to not need a lot on the production side. We had this equipment that we had been able to accumulate over the years. There was two years with this New York-based thing, until OEO pulled out. You see, there was Appalshop, New York, and OEO. OEO was funding New York who was funding Appalshop. We broke first because we couldn't take the pressure that was coming to us from New York. It just didn't fit, the direction they were moving in. OEO itself went out of business in '73.

Anyway, where did the money come from? We went out and raised it. One of the things that we got fairly early was that this is a large, diverse country, and a wealthy country. This country can afford to support some people in the mountains who are making films about this place. It can. This country can afford us to do it. It's out there for us, if we can go to the right place to get it. But connected to that is we can do without it. It seems to be almost contradictory, but it puts you in a position where you say you're questions are with us, not with them.

I think that those two things, which seem a bit contradictory but are actually connected have been the two ideas, in terms of how we understand our role, how we approach funders, how we deal with federal agencies or state agencies and so forth, they are the two ideas which reveal that we have important work to do here in this place. There's money in other places that can and should go to support this work. One of the things that we need to do is to go out there and make our case.

Let me give you one small example of what I mean. Let's say we go to the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation -- who owns that money in the Ford Foundation? There are no stockholders. Nobody owns it. It's a nonprofit entity which was created after, actually before, but largely after Henry Ford died. Okay? Now, how did that money get in Henry Ford's name? Did he mine coal? No, people down here mine coal. They sent it up there to Henry Ford's outfit, and they made cars out of it. So this wealth that's in Ford's hands and now in the hands of this entity called the Ford Foundation, to some degree came from these very mountains. One of the things we're going to do is to go up there and say we have some ideas of how to revitalize this place, and we expect you to be a part of it.

Sometimes they agree. Sometimes we get turned down. Sometimes we get funded. In other words, our position is, we aren't just beggin'. We've got some good things to do and we want people with their hands on some money to be a part of it. And to some degree it's their job to be.

Developing what democracy is in the U.S.

In Motion Magazine: The kind of ideas that you're working with -- recording what's going on here and expressing people's views -- is that developing what democracy is in the U.S.?

Herb E. Smith: I would hope so. I think there's a lot of lip-service paid to democracy in this country. I remember when I was in high school here, that the civics teacher said, today we're going to study democracy. Now sit down and shut up! (Laughter)

Appalachian miners of an earlier day.There's a lot more talk about it than there is actually practiced, and particularly in the coal fields. My grandfather Smith, my father's father, worked in the coal mines. He went 13 years without drawing a paycheck. Thirteen years, not a penny, not one cent in American money. It was all through the company store. The company owned his house, he had a company doctor. Everything he had was connected to this company. Company towns often were operated in a way where if you had a party in your company house that you were renting from the coal company, you could lose your job and lose your house and your family would have to move to somewhere else. That's not democracy.

This whole sense of paternalism and economic domination and keeping working people under your thumb is what our experience was. Particularly after the coal companies came in here with a vengeance, and in this case, the railroad hit in 1912 and thousands of coal jobs were created within a year or two.

The point is that we got away from this idea of democracy in the coalfields. We're only now really getting to the point where people feel like it's okay to challenge these coal companies. As a kid, I remember people being scared.

The first response after it got so crazy was clandestine - tipples going up. But there wasn't anything organized -- other than the United Mine Workers, which were resisted with machine guns and everything else.

Anyway, to bring it back to recent times, I think there's an actual renewal of this idea of democracy in the coalfields now, as the employment in the coal mines has decreased. We're now producing more coal than ever in the history of the state of Kentucky. But we have the smallest number of miners to produce that coal in the last hundred years.

What that means is you have a lot of people who had previously made this deal, to some degree unspoken, even in contractual relationships, that says we'll accept you're dominance if, in exchange, we get jobs, regular employment, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. There was this deal that was struck. Now that deal is off, because the jobs aren't there. Now people are saying, why should I allow this company to take the top off the mountain and push it down into my creek? Why should we accept the kinds of things that are continuing to happen to us as these people produce this coal? Why should we accept the lack of a fair taxation system? Why should we accept the kinds of things that are happening in health care for miners?

I think where we're at now is there is more opportunity than there is the capacity to seize it. It's like when Appalshop didn't know how to be a business. If you don't know it, you don't know it. If you haven't had any experience with running a business, then you've got to figure it out, and it's not easy. The same things is true with democracy. If you haven't practiced it, if you aren't raised in a culture that practices it, if you have always been somewhat inactive, to then seize the day is -- it's kind of scary. You don't know exactly how to do it. People are figuring it out, but it's not automatic.

I think people are learning it here, and I think what we're doing can be a part of that.

For example, through our radio station. People come on the radio station. There's music from Whitesburg on the radio station. You don't have to go to Nashville and get accepted by the Nashville music industry in order to be on Whitesburg's radio station. You can be from Whitesburg and get on Whitesburg's radio station. In general, it's a sense that we can be actors rather than people to be acted upon. And if there's anything that Appalshop is doing, it is trying to be a part of that process. The psychologists have this term, they call it self-actualization. It has to do with understanding yourself as something other than a passive recipient. I hope that this work that we're doing with films and theater and photography, music, and so forth has something to do with our understanding of our history, our understanding of our own ability to know what's valuable about this place, how we can understand ourselves as a people, as a culture.

The effects of the work at Appalshop

In Motion Magazine: So how does that start to show itself? What are the effects of the work at Appalshop?

Herb E. Smith: Appalshop is a small portion of a larger process throughout the Appalachians -- and I find it in thousands of communities that we visit. I was just up in West Virginia, working on the last film I finished about a community called Corretta and what happened when the coal company pulled out of Corretta. The company had run the town just like all the company towns were managed, including the water system. Well, when the company pulled out, the water system went down. Who's going to run the water system now? Not only did people lose their jobs, but they lost their water, and that starts to be pretty serious at some point. The good side of the story is that it was a long process of people going to the public service district and getting 4.5 million dollars to rebuild the water system.

I see it wherever I go though it's not something that is perhaps obvious or going to make the nightly news.

Let me give you another example. There's a little community college here in this town that started three or four years ago. We have hundreds of people in this county who go to this community college and are trying to upgrade their skills. 70-80% of those, I understand, are women. In some ways, I actually think the women in the mountains have been better at retooling in the face of this major loss of jobs than the men have. I'm saying that family by family, community by community, county by county, people are coming to grips with this major transition in the coalfields, and for the most part, it's a healthy process.

Turning Appalachia around

In Motion Magazine: How does political thought get from the level of these women completely turning Appalachia around, to political representation?

Herb E. Smith: Well it's interesting that at this time in the coalfields, most of the representation is more progressive, if you want to use that word, than the country as a whole. I think that's partly an indication of what we're talking about. If you look at the election returns in the coalfields, they aren't in the midst of this Gingrich direction that we heard about in the '94 elections.

First, it is separate to some degree from what is happening nationally. But also, there are countervailing forces, people who don't like democracy. There are a lot of so-called free enterprise people who don't like free enterprise. What they like is government contracts.

Anyway, the question of how we change this country, I don't have the answer to. I think we can be a part of that, but just as we are a part of what's happening in this region, the same is true nationally. I think it's easy to get defeated in overreaching the capacity of groups to deal with national and international politics. Our strengths are in the localities. Though we have to be vocal, nationally.

We have to say why we think cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, are wrong. But to think that there aren't countervailing forces that are very powerful and allied against you is to be pretty naive. We're going to be active on a number of fronts. The one that is most important and where our greatest strength is, is the homefront.

Tell me about your work

In Motion Magazine: Tell me about your work

Beyond MeasureHerb E. Smith: I just finished this film, it's called Beyond Measure, it's about the history of the Appalachian economy. And how culture has been a part of that.

This film is about an hour long. We filmed people in Corretta, we filmed miners lined up for unemployment checks and talking about what that felt like for them, we found a lot of archival material, and we tried to tell the story. Somebody said it's like seeing a tidal wave from the perspective of the fish. (Laughter) And I think it is, to some degree. That's part of what I attempted to do. What's it like to go through these kinds of economic changes, that turmoil? What is it in people's lives and families and communities that sustains them in the face of these horrible things that happen to them? That's my film, Beyond Measure.

In Motion Magazine: How many films have you made?

Herb E. Smith: I'd say eighty or ninety.

In Motion Magazine: What's the distribution like?

Herb E. Smith: Most of our distribution is within the Appalachian region, and surrounding areas. We are fairly connected to colleges and universities around the region. After 25 years, -- almost 26 years now -- people get to know you.

We try to make the distribution self-sustaining, so that the income from the use of the films and videotapes pays to get them out there. That means the production, the front-side, has to always be subsidized, but the distribution side is kind of complex. We're in the midst of working on a number of new ideas. One thing is that these markets are continually changing, and what was current a year ago isn't now. For example, we used to sell mainly 16 mm prints. Well, we sell almost no 16 mm prints anymore. And so that changes the nature of distribution.

In Motion Magazine: Do people buy their own copies?

Herb E. Smith: Mainly it's educational users today. Colleges, universities, libraries, some high schools, some community groups, some churches -- what's called the education market. It's a different market to get into Walmarts, for instance.

VCRs weren't in people's homes five years ago as much as they are now. All of this is very much in the midst of change, and we're trying to reposition in response to these kinds of changes that are happening in the avenues of distribution and the possibilities of them. To some degree we're succeeding.

In 1980, if you had gone to a motion picture studio and said I want a copy of the feature film that you made five years ago, they'd say, we don't sell them. Schools who wanted access to film and videotapes made out of Hollywood, couldn't get their hands on them. Now you go up to the Walmart and you get Forrest Gump for $15, and people use those things in the classrooms.

In addition, a lot of it has to do with visibility. For example, we released Beyond Measure. We don't have $50 million to promote Beyond Measure. It doesn't have a theatrical release, it isn't something that there are reviews in newspapers about. The presence in the market place is very hard to establish when you're on the scale that we're on. Therefore if Beyond Measure were to be on the shelves in Walmart, how many people would know what they're looking at when they saw the title, as compared to, say, Lion King. When you get to the consumer level, there's a kind of consciousness in the marketplace that's very hard to establish without a lot of cash.

What you've learned about identity

In Motion Magazine: Tell me more about what you've learned about identity in the making of your films and from the films that others make about this region.

Herb E. Smith: My wife and I were in India showing Appalshop films, and what's interesting is that a series like Dallas is being shown in India. Their image of Americans comes from Dallas. We were in Calcutta, in Bangalore, in Bombay, Madras, and people in the audience would stand up time after time and say this is the first time I've felt a kinship with Americans. I know that you're not all rich people, you're not all in cities, you care about your families, that there's some sense of community . When you look at Dallas and it's the opposite of what this country should be about. In some ways, it's the worst representation of the country that's possible, even to ourselves.

Strip mineIf we start thinking as Americans that somehow if we're not out there in JR land, we're not cutting it then ... That kind of internalized oppression, I think, is the most serious kind. If you start thinking that you have to deny the place that you're a part of, or apologize for who your grandparents are when you go to a meeting, then you've lost before you even say what you went to the meeting for. I think that the position of just regular people in this country feeling that they somehow aren't up to snuff and can't somehow establish their own validity in opposition to powerful interests, is scary. It's the change in our own understanding of who we are that has to come first. You can't argue about strip mining to a strip miner if you think that the first thing you have to do is apologize for your grandparents or the way you talk or the way you're dressed. I think that's a very spooky and dangerous thing.

Look, there's a McDonald's right at the foot of the hill where I live, and I drive by there with my kids at various points in the day. We've got to drive by there to go home. And you know, my kids want to stop at McDonald's, and I think to myself, what is it that makes them want to stop there? I don't think it's the food, you know what I mean? I really think when it comes down to it, there's been a sales job there. In fact, the McDonald's people would say there's been a sales job. They put those commercials out there with a strategy, and they look at the return, they look at the results of this sales job. Is our sales, marketing effort being successful or not? What are they selling you on? They aren't selling you on food. They're selling you on the notion that you're with it if you go to McDonald's. You are a part of this other thing that's somehow bigger and better than you are.

A lot of mountain people, especially when they hit these cities, get treated horribly. A lot of the people in these cities, such as Chicago, when they see a hundred thousand people from the mountains arrive, they're kind of scared of them. For example, I remember when Deliverance was made. I remember there was a social worker from Connecticut down here, do-gooders, as we call them, whose mother went and saw Deliverance and called her up the next day and said, 'Get back up here to Connecticut!' There's this sense that somehow mountain people are this thing that they're portraying,. It's a pervasive problem.

I'm saying it's complex. The fact is that the only place that the Beverly Hillbillies is still being aired is in the Appalachian region. Now, why is that true? What is there about Granny and Paw that we want to watch, as mountain people? What are the anxieties in us that Jed and Jethro work out for us? What's scary to me about all this is the ability of this work, this film and television industry, to put us in a position of weakness. The portrayal of people that they will then sell. These Hollywood studios aren't making Deliverance out of some sense of conviction, you know, they're doing it for cash. They're trying to find what is marketable in the theaters and in VCRs. I'm saying that those market forces will put you in a bad position if you are someone who's own homeland in the place where your grandparents were raised, raising hogs, raising chickens, planting a garden, taking care of the gravesites, looking out for the daily concerns of your community -- those people who are making money selling your image to you and other people will treat you like you are the embodiment of the problem. If you believe that, and they are successful in their ability to sell you on that, then you are in a very difficult position.

In reality, the thing that's being sold to us as being backwards is the thing that, in many ways, is our strength. The thing that's being sold to us as being progress is destroying us. This sense that somehow this great American culture and great American economy is the salvation, that somehow your task is to deny this place, to deny the part that you play in it. It weakens your ability to deal with things of substance if the images of you put you in a situation of weakness or of self-denigration. In reality, the images do change your life, they change the people you talk to, they change you, and they change your ability to communicate with them.

In Motion Magazine: Looking back over the history of Appalshop, how successful do you think you've been?

Herb E. Smith: I think if I were to look back on the last 25, 26 years and the body of work that's available, I would say that to some degree, we have succeeded in being able to give an inside view of the place that we're a part of. The thing that distinguishes our work from almost any other that's available is that we live and work in the place that we're making films and videotapes about. That's a kind of rare thing in this country, and I think internationally.

Most of the time, film and videomakers fly into a place, make a film about that, and then they're flying into some other place. They actually have little depth of personal experience in the place that they're making films and videotapes about. What we can say is that for 26 years, in this small town in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields, and this body of work comes out of that sense of longevity, that you get a certain depth of understanding of the place . I think that's what keeps our work honest. We do live and work here and will in the future, and we show our work in this place to the people. They are our first and most important audience, and most important critics. If I were to say what have we done that's different, it's this long-term relationship with the place that we're making the work about. I think that gives us a perspective that is reflected in these films.

To contact Herb E. Smith and/or to purchase videos, write to:

Appalshop, 306 Madison St.,
Whitesburg, KY 41858

or telephone: 606.633.0108

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine March 10, 1996