PBS Frontline: 'Country Boys'
Wednesday, January 11, 2006; 11:00 AM
Filmmaker David Sutherland was online Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS film "Country Boys," about two boys coming of age in Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian hills and the challenges they face in overcoming poverty and differences and their path to adulthood.
"Country Boys" airs Jan. 9, 10, and 11, 2006 from 9 to 11 P.M. ET (check local listings).
The transcript follows.
washingtonpost.com: Watch Country Boys online here
Paducah, Ky.: So much is said about Appalachia. I was wondering what Chris/Cody think of their homeland, of the Nature that surrounds them... How does Cody respond to the environment of the city when he is in Lexington? What positive or negative changes do Chris/Cody foresee for their hometown?
David Sutherland: Both Chris and Cody love Eastern Kentucky, with all its problems and issues.
David Sutherland: Cody lived in Lexington with his grandparents for awhile after his father's death, so he is used to city life, to a degree. But he has bad memories there. Regarding Kentucky, Cody once said on the school bus that he wanted to settle in KY, and "get one of those portable toilets where I could just sit in my rocker and never have to move".
Chris has passed through some cities... when we end the film, he takes off and he went through some cities on his way to Florida. he wasn't crazy about it. He's told me many times that he doesn't want to leave KY.
They both have said that cities aren't bad, but given the choice they prefer Kentucky.
Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, how did y'all do it? How did you get in so close? I don't see that any of the film crew could have been in the room too often. This is important work. Thank you.
David Sutherland: Getting close has a lot to do with my personality, and there aren't any rules for that. Even though I'm in a different place from my subjects, I have a lot in common with them. I'm rebellious, and as they both have said publicly, I'm crazier than they are. Maybe I never grew up. But I always say no matter how different you are, you have to find commonality between you and your subjects and adapt your personality to the situation. I'm not reverent with them, I'm not formal with them. I deal with them as real people.
As far as the film crew goes, often the only person in a room they'd see would be the cameraman be cause of our wireless radio microphones, the rest of the crew would be outside where the scene took place. When there are tense situations going on, after awhile, everyone gets used to you being there, and you become invisible.
Centreville, Va.: I've only seen 3 of the 6 hours so far, but I'm riveted. Oh, man, Chris is breaking my heart. He's been dealt a terrible hand.
I have to say that while their intentions may be good, The David School doesn't seem to be very impressive. It's clear that Chris needs a lot of support, but they seem to keep setting him up to fail. He has ideas for the newspaper and choir, but then he's left to do it on his own. Where was the music teacher in starting the choir? Do they have any counseling services? It seems like it's the same old story: the kids who really need help get the worst teachers.
David Sutherland: The one thing that I want people to have watching this film is to have an open mind. And I say that to kids that have worked on my crew that are 25 years old as well as to people that are much much older. Nothing, for me, is black and white. everything is grey areas. So maybe one teacher may not be as supportive as another, but then there are some, like Mitzi, who might be legions above somebody else. Or you might get somebody in the film like Danny, who is looking for any resource to help the kids sometimes. But the teachers are willing to do home visits, personal counseling, and one teacher in part 3 even lets Chris live in her garage apartment for free. Nothing is ever going to be prefect.
Angola, Ind.: Hello. I will watch the remaining episode of Country Boys tonight. It is a very touching story indeed. Where are the boys today & what are they doing? Thanks.
David Sutherland: Cody is finishing up his degree in heating and cooling technology, living with Jessica, and working. He and Jessica were married in 2004 and live in a trailer near Liz. Chris returned from Florida and moved in with his friend Jay. He still lives there today, working odd jobs and wrestling. Although he still hopes to attend college, he is currently pursuing a career in the coal mines
David, Ky.: David, I was a student at the David School when you was filming all this. As a matter a fact you used one of my poems in the series of Country Boys. My name is Dustin Burchett if you remember me. I am doing great now--I am a PFC in the Army. What are your thoughts on how we run things in Floyd County compared to how things are run where you're from? I think that was Boston, Mass.
David Sutherland: Hi Dustin -
I think that because you lived in a smaller town the problems are more obviously on the surface. And where I live (Boston, you're right) because there are larger numbers of people and all of that, it's easier for the politicians to put smokescreens up and hide many of the problems that are there. One big difference, though, is that there are many more support services that we take for granted in Boston that are available to help kids that you don't have there. For example, YMCA... there are many colleges here that use their support services to help people and kids that are needy.
I hope you're well and I loved your poem. :)
Charlottesville, Va.: As a native of Southwest Virginia's coalfields, I have made a successful life for myself after graduating from college and moving out of the area. I am involved in public affairs for a large company. However, I miss my roots and have an inferiority complex because I grew up so poor and my family that remained in the area is still living in squalid conditions, many of them on disability and welfare. These are intelligent people, yet they do not seem to want to work (or at least to work in the jobs that are available). They give up easily, facing insurmountable odds and deciding to opt out of the rat race. I love my family, but dread going home to visit. Why is it that many of these intelligent people seem to want to live off government assistance instead of getting a job? Is it the lack of money for a vehicle to get to work, have insurance on the vehicle, affordable childcare, etc.? Is the lack of proper housing, a local infrastructure and opportunity too much to overcome for those who remain in the area?
David Sutherland: I don't think there's any choice sometimes except government assistance... there aren't a lot of opportunities there, no public transit, and there aren't a lot of support services. A lot of government programs that helped the area have been cut back and have disappeared over the years. However, people your age do have the resource of the computer. I found kids in WV who were as adept at using the computer as kids in the cities. So I see that as the great equalizer. I basically think that with all the outsourcing that's going on, where people from India are working for American companies, that I think somebody could really tap into that great resource of technically proficient youth in your area. And you should love West Virginia, I think it's the most beautiful state in the country and almost did this film there. Good luck, David
Gulfport, Miss.: I have also watched "The Farmer's Wife" and I thought like "Country Boys" it is a very moving story, and I was wondering what brings you to want to document the stories of people struggling in rural areas.
David Sutherland: I guess I just love those places. I've traveled all over the country and lived in a lot of places when I was younger. I did the Farmer's Wife because I sold agricultural tires over the phone in Great Falls Montana to farmers all through the Midwest. I love those people, and they thought I was different but funny and accepted me as one of them. that's how I got the money to buy my first house. That got me to do, years later, two films (Out of Sight and TFW) and people thinking that the Buschkoetters in TFW didn't look poor was what brought me to Appalachia. But I've lived in rural poverty now, for 12 straight years.
Morehead, Ky.: This film is a disgrace.
It it a film that just shows the stereotypical Eastern Ky. hick, that most of America thinks is the standard of this area.
My father grew up in this same area in the 40s and 50s, his father was a coal miner (with a 4th grade education) and his mother (with a 6th grade education) who raised the seven kids. They did not get SSI or any other government checks, and all but one child graduated from Collage, two with MA's.
If you want to show Eastern Ky. show all of it not just one side. You should be ashamed of yourself for helping to instill the stereotype.
Thank you very much!
David Sutherland: I'm sorry you think it's a disgrace, but I think you're too sensitive and can't look beyond your nose. I'm not saying that Cody and Chris "represent" every kid and everybody in Eastern KY. I'm not showing them as ignorant, I'm showing them as 2 kids that have a lot in common with teenagers everywhere. They're as hip as kids anywhere, they use the Internet, and kids all over the country are from broken homes or deal with alcoholism. But these kids have possibilities to amount to something great, and if you keep watching the film, open your mind and realize how intelligent they are. Cody's message is "don't judge a book by its cover", and if you can open your mind to him, he might be the most evolved person of any age you'll ever meet in your life.
As far as Chris goes, he's from a family living in deep "Appalachian Poverty", but he certainly speaks better than any teacher I ever had in Boston. When it comes down to it, he can do the work of 3 people, given the chance. By the end of the film, he does succeed, and you leave knowing that even though he could fall between the cracks, but he could also become governor. he's certainly smart enough too.
If I were you, I would try and look at both these kids for who they are, not by the trappings of their humble roots.
Virginia Beach, Va.: How much of the dialog is scripted and how much is spontaneous? To what degree is "Country Boys" a work of fact versus a work of fiction?
David Sutherland: none of the film is scripted, so to speak. The scenes you see are real as they happened. When Chris and Cody sometimes narrate their feelings after a scene happens, I might ask them a question like "what's going on with you" and in that situation they might stumble and I might have to ask the question a few more times. I promised them that all their narration pieces would be clear and understandable. Because for me, a "sync scene" motivates comment, when the boys are willing to do it. Obviously, to cut down the show, I have to take scenes out and shorten scenes, but I never change the gist of a scene as it gets cut down.
Shreveport, La.: Thanks so much for doing this -- you have done a beautiful, moving job and inspired me to get off my butt and start pursuing my own documentary career. About how many hours of footage did you have before you started editing? How difficult was that process?
David Sutherland: I edited while I was shooting, but the end total amounts to about 1000 hours of footage. Editing was like chasing two white whales, meaning, it took forever. We had so many audio tracks that to separate them so that they didn't echo or phase was really a chore. it's not a process that I would recommend to most young filmmakers. But remember, I'm a portraitist without an agenda. My goal is to make you feel like you're living in the skin of these boys, so that even somebody who might not like them will have to live with them, so to speak, and keep an open mind as they go through some of the emotionally grueling situations.
New York, N.Y.: Hi David - great episode last night, had us in tears at the end. I wish though the preview for the conclusion hadn't shown us their graduation!
I have to tell you how riveting the film is - gritty reality is very difficult to stomach, but this is beautifully done and you end up really caring about the people.
It's curious though - this is consistently called a film rather than a documentary - a conscious decision?
David Sutherland: as far as I'm concerned, I don't do the publicity, but if I had my druthers it could be called a portrait. I don't think it really is documentary in the traditional sense. Although I do document what's going on, I don't have an agenda and most documentaries do. You can call it what you want, for me, I'm just doing the portrait of these kids and I want it to be as accurate as it can be, like a painting.
Murray, Ky.: How is Jessica's father doing? I was wondering if he received any interest from music execs for his singing.
David Sutherland: Jessica's dad, Ray Riddle, is doing much better. there sure are a lot of email from a lot of people praising him. His Web site is http:/
Bloomingdale, Mich.: To what extent do you believe poverty is a choice (beyond being born into it)?
David Sutherland: why don't I say this: no-one chooses to stay in poverty, it's just that some of us have more resources to get out of it than others. It takes mentors, role models, all of that. From what I've observed over the last 12 years, it's really difficult to pull yourself out of it, but many people perform that Herculean feat. These days there are less government services available to enable these people to pull themselves out. But don't misunderstand, everyone in poverty has dignity, and many people I've met living in rural poverty understand the human condition better than many intellectuals who study it in our universities.
Richmond, Va.: Mr. Sutherland,
Thank you for the great program. Question: Near the end of yesterday's program, Mitzi announced to the David School students that she resigned. Where is she now and what is she doing? Thank you.
David Sutherland: thanks, I'm glad you liked the show. You could get in touch with the David School and they could give you information as to how to reach Mitzi Crisp (now Crum - she's married.) They're listed off our Web site here
St. Paul, Minn.: If Chris is reading this, I hope he knows there are lots of people out there rooting for him. He's clearly a bright young man, one who had to be son and parent. Also found "The Farmer's Wife" very moving. Can you tell us how Juanita and Darrel have fared? They, too, were people who inspired viewers to care about them.
David Sutherland: Juanita and Darrel have divorced, but both have remarried and at happy in their lives. The girls see both parents often. Darrell is still farming.
David Sutherland: Juanita and Darrel have divorced, but both have remarried and at happy in their lives. The girls see both parents often, and the two oldest girls are in college. Juanita is managing crop insurance, and Darrell still has the farm going. Right now, they all seem much happier. Juanita called me the night before the film aired to wish me luck and make sure I'm as crazy as ever.
Evanston, Ill.: Your documentary certainly portrays these boys in a realistic, non-judgmental way. I am from the area, Logan County, W. Va., now in Chicago. I am always surprised by the lack of knowledge and understanding urbanites have about Appalachia, and by the often condescending attitudes.
David Sutherland: I think that your perception about the misunderstandings of Appalachia by the outside world is much more than it was when I was a kid. Because at least in those days the media used to cover Appalachia. in today's world I have found that many college kids don't even know about Appalachia. throughout Appalachia, because of the Internet, many kids are more aware of the outside world than the outside world is of them.
New York, N.Y.: Hi David. What has the reaction of Cody and Chris and their families been to the show? Obviously a lot of the people in their lives don't come out looking too good - what have they said?
David Sutherland: I could answer this later, because right now the screening of the film is a work in progress. You can write me via my Web site at http:/
Washington, D.C.: David,
I'm enjoying the series very much. It reminds me a bit of "Stevie," directed by Steve James, and focusing on similar problems in a similar region (southern Illinois). In that film, the director becomes personally involved with his subject. Were you ever tempted to do that with Cody and Chris? What shape will your future relationship with them take, if any? Thanks.
David Sutherland: Actually, I know Steve James, and he's a terrific filmmaker. I do my best not to get too involved with my subjects when I'm filming. I'm not their friend, but they can trust me to show up, and I have to trust them to let me continue filming them until, in this case, they graduate high school. sometimes it's hard to do this, especially when kids are teenagers and living in tough situations. It's easier to do this as I get older because I get more cantankerous. But after the film's done, I usually can and do become friends with my subjects. I'm still in touch with everybody that I've ever done a film about.
Palos Verdes, Calif.: I caught the end last night, and was instantly absorbed in the present and future for each of them. Are you planning to film a follow up?
David Sutherland: I never do follow-ups. let somebody else do it. when I complete my film portrait, that's the painting so to speak.
Port St. Lucie, Fla.: Hi David,Thank you for another wonderful Indie Film. What's next for you?
David Sutherland: What's next for me? I don't know if I'll do another film, I haven't decided. But I am looking for a younger woman to support me.
Lexington, Ky.: I have really enjoyed watching the first two series so far. As a filmmaker, what are your personal goals for filming. Do you plan to continue to shoot films such as "Country Boys"? Do you have any expectations about what may occur after the airing of "Country Boys"?
David Sutherland: if I do another film, which I might have to do because at this point in my life I have much less money than I've ever had in years, so I'm gonna have to do something... and I don't teach because I don't have a teaching degree. Getting funding for long-form films like this can be very difficult. as far as post broadcast, I never know what's going to appear for the kids. I hope some opportunities might come their way. I am sure about one thing - whatever effect this film has on both these kids, they both have more self-esteem, and the fact is that they deserve it, because they are special people and have the possibility to do amazing things.
San Francisco, Calif.: Were the number of shots of religious references on local signage (stores, etc) to reflect the influence of local religion on Cody, or to make a broader point about the importance of religion in local life?
David Sutherland: The purpose of the signs had more to do with cody, but they also do represent what I saw throughout the area. I also use the signs for another purpose - they usually have moving vehicles in the frame. the purpose of that is to take you to the next scene. It's a subconscious element that I use.
Washington, D.C.: Regarding the "yellowjacket" incident -- if the young man had apparently been falsely accused of given the drugs to the female student who was subsequently hospitalized, why did he (to appease his mother?) accept responsibility if staying in school was a requirement for receiving the SSI check? In other words, if he was innocent, would that not have kept him in school and not jeopardized his SSI privileges?
David Sutherland: As far as I understand it, it appears that Chris' mother might have thought that if he admits to anything (because he had already admitted to something) that the school might be more likely to let him stay in school and the SSI check could continue until graduation. If he cops to something, I guess I mean. If he had continued to profess his innocence, they might just think "ok, I can't work with this kid"
Currituck, N.C.: How do you find individuals willing to be so public with their private lives? You have done an amazing job showing the life of Chris and Cody.
David Sutherland: in dealing with my subjects, I show them all of me. For example, I'll let you know something about me. I'm dyslexic, I type 8 words a minute, I can't cook and I can't dance (I would tango if I could). I'm a lot of work for anyone but I think I'm worth it.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: I was wondering if Cody and Chris have been paid any money for the film or any other type of payment.....
David Sutherland: I never pay my subjects, although I hope that the film will bring them notoriety, good fortune, etc. After "The Farmer's Wife", a viewed bought Juanita braces, so anything can happen
David Sutherland: I never pay my subjects, although I hope that the film will bring them notoriety, good fortune, etc. After "The Farmer's Wife", a viewer bought Juanita braces, so anything can happen.
Munich, Germany: During the 2004 election, I became aware for the first time that there was a thing in the U.S. called the Blue-Red divide. In the meantime, the more I read, the more it seems that the American heartland is headed in a divergent direction from Europe.
What places, events and experiences would you recommend to a person who has lived in Europe for a while, who wants to understand the people in Kentucky a little better?
David Sutherland: My answer would be just to go there. follow the Appalachian mountains from New York state to the deep south. It would be an interesting trip for you, and quite beautiful to boot.
Gaithersburg, Md.: This is an excellent show, and has given me a lot to think about.
One question that does not seem to have been answered on the Web site or in parts one and two--did Cody ever get an accounting of the money? Was his unofficial guardian getting any support for him?
David Sutherland: Cody did get an accounting for the money. You'll see in part 3 what he does with that money. Liz got no compensation from the government or otherwise. She covered his living expenses, and as he says in part three, she is a great lady.
New Orleans, La.: I would love it if your next project would be to get down here to the Gulf Coast and do your next film about the victims of Katrina & tell the real story about the poverty & people trying to recover. You could do a great job.
David Sutherland: my 10 closest friends actually live in NO, and I have donated money to victims of Katrina. I lived in Abita Springs, LA right after I got kicked out of film school. I wrote screenplays there. We'll see... maybe I'm too close to the situation there, I don't know. But I do love it down there, and I love the food too.
Cincinnati, Ohio: Mr. Sutherland, your film touched me in a way that no other documentary ever has. I left Floyd Co. 50 years ago because of the lack of opportunity for young people. I went to Berea College and graduated from Eastern Ky. University because of my father's mentoring. My question is how did you come to hear about the David School and the two young men in your film?
David Sutherland: "Country Boys"
Here is some of your answer, and if you check back on my Web site (http:/
Shasta Lake, Calif.: Does Cody have a relationship with his grandmother, aunt and other family members?
David Sutherland: we'll see what happens after the airing of the show... I assume you're talking about his paternal grandparents. As far as his maternal grandparents, who we meet in part 3, he definitely has a relationship with them.
Nashville, Tenn.: Such an inspiring story. How is Chris' father, or does that get answered in part three? Will there be a soundtrack to the film? The music is great!
David Sutherland: that does get answered in part three...
as of now there are no plans and no money to make a soundtrack for the film. But you can to to Ray Riddle's Web page (http:/
Fayetteville, Ark.: First of all, I have been riveted by your documentary, and I think it is tremendous that focus is being placed on rural poverty. I grew up in a trailer that looks remarkably like Chris's in a family nearly as poor. Though I did manage to attend college, the struggle to stay in due to financial restrictions was overwhelming. It is one thing to say that Chris should go to college, but would a kid from his circumstances even consider something like a university remotely available to him?
David Sutherland: Alice Lloyd and Berea colleges offer great opportunities to help kids like Chris, or any kid living there.
Hoboken, N.J.: Hello, Mr. Sutherland. I have watched both nights of Country Boys and plan to watch the last part tonight. Thank you for your examination of rural poverty. I wanted to know if The David School is a public school. The school's science teacher's personal endorsement of creationism really bothered me last night. She seemed to counter every point about evolution with her own personal religious beliefs. If it is a public school, she should not be teaching creationism. For obvious reasons, the vast majority of young people in that community have turned to religion. However, it is unconstitutional for the science teacher to teach anything but the theory of evolution in her science class (that is, if the school receives public funding). Thanks for your time and for your wonderful program.
David Sutherland: As far as I'm concerned, I don't have an agenda in terms of what is right or wrong, and I'm only documenting what's happening in the class. it's a tricky situation for me. Many times I film scenes where my politics might be different, but I have an open mind, even if I radically disagree with someone's point of view, as long as they really believe what they're saying and they're not using it to make political stock. But I also think you should take that Cody says to the kids in part three: "don't adopt your parents' point of view - you should make up your own mind about things"
Fairfax, Va.: Hi David,
Were there any times when either Chris or Cody asked you to stop filming?
David Sutherland: There were a few times when they or their parents didn't want me there filming.
Boston, Mass.: How did you come to film this particular community? What process did you go through to decide to focus on Chris and Cody? I love the series -- I have an 18 year old son getting ready to leave home and it's quite an emotional thing for me to watch your show.
David Sutherland: I have two kids that are much older than Chris and Cody, and there were many crises in my house, but that's part of being a parent. As long as you're supportive of these kids at that age and have an open mind to listen to them, then they'll get through it and you'll get through it, knowing you did the best you did to help them.
Washington, D.C.: My roommates and I have been riveted the past two nights. Thank you for documenting this.
Is the David school private or an alternative extension of public school? I was surprised by the science class discussions, particularly the evolution lesson.
David Sutherland: you can to to the Web site of the David school
Aylmer, Ontario: Did you shoot on film or video? How much time did you spend in the community before you started recording? There is such an ease about your presence, it's as if you aren't even noticed. Some remarkable access to their lives.
David Sutherland: I shot on video (DV and Beta SP). I was there three times for about 10 days each time before I started filming.
Gallatin, Tenn.: What happened to Chris' father and mother?
David Sutherland: You'll see that at the end of part 3
Syracuse, N.Y.: Is Cody still active in the church?
David Sutherland: Cody, at the present time, isn't affiliated with a particular church. His church closed and his pastor moved back to Wisconsin. However, he is still a deep believer and has a strong message that he communicates through his music and the way he lives. He is still committed to performing some special service for God.
Aylmer, Ontario: In episode two, Cody and another student are on the bus and there is a brief discussion about homosexuality and their attitudes, including the view that a lot of people are "going gay". Later, Cody talks about a friend who is now gay, as if he has made a choice. Did you encounter any more progressive attitudes regarding sexual orientation or is this typical?
David Sutherland: Cody is an extraordinary person. His views on sexuality aren't really typical of the area, but he has an enormous amount of compassion and the ability to see past things like sexuality or skin
David Sutherland: Cody is an extraordinary person. His views on sexuality aren't really typical of the area, but he has an enormous amount of compassion and the ability to see past things like sexuality. Cody is still close friends with that kid Ricky and his boyfriend.
Los Angeles, Calif.: A style question -- Were the boy's narrations just from interviews? They almost sound like they're reading from a diary or letters at times.
David Sutherland: yes - only from interviews. One of my criteria for selecting these subjects was that they needed to be able to speak deeply about their feelings. I think that both boys did a great job of that
David Sutherland: Yes - narration was only from interviews. One of my criteria for selecting these subjects was that they needed to be able to speak deeply about their feelings about some of the scenes that we witnessed so that the viewer can understand what is going on in their heads. This is an ongoing process throughout the filming process. But usually a sync scene motivates comment from them.
Blue Mountain, Miss.: How, if it all, did the filming of "Country Boys" impact you emotionally? Did you find yourself being empathetic towards the two young boys?
David Sutherland: The fact is that while I'm making the film, I appear to my crew to be cool and fairly clinical. then when I'm back in the editing room, I sometimes let my opinions out. However, over the course of time, and in this case it was seven years, as much physical wear and damage that my body took, I find that the process of witnessing some of the heartwrenching scenes while filming deeply affects me. It sometimes is hard to recover from, which is why I don't know if I'll do another film of this type. (long form, third person extremely close up documentary)
Ramsey, N.J.: David, what an achievement! I am looking forward to tonight's closing segment. My question is: what was the rhythm/process for incorporating the characters' life events into the production? i.e. was Chris' mom's leaving re-enacted or did you film it in real time? If it was re-enacted, how did you ensure the authenticity and if it was real time, how did you ensure/respect their privacy?
David Sutherland: I filmed everything in real time. The fact is that when Chris' mom left, I had damaged footage in part of that scene. But nothing is re-enacted.
Greensboro, N.C.: Do you think the fact that the boys knew you were making a film about them affected the decisions they made about their lives? Did it make Chris more driven to get his diploma?
David Sutherland: Getting that much attention has to have an effect on your subjects. Perhaps sometimes they see themselves as having more responsibility to rise up. But in many of the emotional scenes, like when Chris is fighting with his mother about not getting up in the morning (in part 2), they're all so mad at each other that we have no effect on them whatsoever. That's what always happens in most of the scenes. In large decisions about their lives, our filming had now effect. When Chris gets his diploma, it's not because he's rising up for a film audience. We weren't even there when he made that decision. He had run out of options.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.