Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret was just an adolescent when the national media discovered her native Appalachia in the 1960s. Well-meaning reporters and photographers descended on the Kentucky coal-mining region in droves, eager to show the world their talent for describing the poverty they found there.
Oh, those photogenic hillbillies! Those lean faces, pinched with hunger and hardship. Watch them carry buckets of water because they don't have indoor plumbing! Look at their barefoot children! Hey, get a shot of that picturesque shack and that old washing machine on the porch! The rest of America, mostly comfortable in an era of prosperity, responded with enthusiasm, sending VISTA volunteers and soldiers in the War on Poverty to help out.
But, as Barret describes in "Stranger With a Camera," there is "a complex interaction between social action and social embarrassment." In her one-hour film, which airs tonight at 11:45 on WETA, Channel 26, as part of PBS's "POV" documentary series, she probes a question that she, like many journalists, finds unanswerable: Can you "show poverty without shaming the people we portray"?
The vehicle for telling this story is the 1967 slaying of a Canadian television journalist, Hugh O'Connor, who was shot by a local landowner, Hobart Ison, as he attempted to interview a coal miner living in one of Ison's $10-a-month shacks in Jeremiah, Ky.
The film is both compelling and disappointing. Vivid interviews and footage alternate with self-indulgent digressions and awkward transitions. Filming Calvin Trillin reading from his 1969 New Yorker article about the slaying is a lame device, and giving us important narrative information in writing is not particularly filmic. Too many questions are left unanswered, and the intriguing story of O'Connor's killing somehow loses focus.
One reason this happens is that Barret underplays some central facts of the case. Although the shooting took place in front of numerous witnesses, Ison's trial resulted in a hung jury; he then pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10 years, and paroled after serving one. (He died in 1978.) Also, when he was first arrested, "the courthouse was full of people who wanted to go his bond," one of Ison's relatives points out. In his summation, Ison's lawyer spoke more about the intrusiveness of the reporters than he did about his client's actions. Clearly, if a community is prepared to sanction killing, there is more going on than just a "dark side," as Barret calls it. Is there something about these people and their feelings toward outsiders that she doesn't want to, or can't, tell us? It's unclear what Barret wants us to conclude from her exploration.
But the other, media-related issues Barret raises are worth pondering. "The media had an obligation to come in and show what decades of neglect can do," says the local newspaper editor. "The nation needed to know."
"A camera is like a gun," says Colin Low, a colleague of O'Connor's. "It's threatening, invasive, exploitative." People give their permission to be photographed, but then their neighbors feel labeled and sneered at. Barret does not suggest that the national media misrepresented the poverty of underpaid (or laid-off) mine workers, but that their cameras and adjectives lingered too lovingly on the scenes of scrawny dogs, unsmiling children and women with missing teeth.
The people in the film say Ison killed O'Connor because he believed his community was being ridiculed, but that feels like only part of the reason. Ison was an eccentric loner, a man of property who allowed people to live in housing that was barely more than shelter, and it seems more likely that his pique was personal rather than communal. The theory that Ison killed to avenge his neighbors against exploitative outsiders is too convenient. It provides Barret with a handy framework for her musings about the responsibility of storytellers.
Unfortunately, there is just as much evidence to suggest that he was just a mean old hothead with a gun.