For first-cousin filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, the hardest part about filming Rich Hill, their upcoming documentary on poverty in rural Missouri, was to stop.
“I just wanted to keep visiting them and visiting them,” Tragos said.
“I think we both very much fell in love with all these families,” Palermo added. “In turn, [they] say they love us like family.”
For about a year and a half, Tragos and Palermo documented with their camera the lives and families of three teenagers growing up in Rich Hill, a poverty-stricken town an hour south of Kansas City. The two filmmakers have a personal connection to Rich Hill: Their parents grew up there. The cousins’ grandmother was Rich Hill’s third-grade teacher, their grandfather the mail carrier. Tragos spent many childhood summers and Christmases exploring the town.
“I’m a city kid from California, but I learned to fish there, learned to collect grasshoppers there, learned to shoot my BB gun there,” Tragos said. “It was an important part of my growing up.”
Tragos noticed, though, that the rest of the town’s residents didn’t live as comfortably as her grandparents. After the coal-mining industry burned out, nothing replaced it. Banks, pharmacies and other businesses closed down or moved closer to the highway. Residents looking for work often need to have a car and money for gas, and if they don’t, they’re out of luck.
Tragos and Palermo decided in 2011 to help tell Rich Hill’s story, which echoes so many other struggling rural towns in the U.S. With Rich Hill, the cousins hope to give an intimate perspective of what it’s like to live in an isolated rural town.
“We feel like these kids that we focus on are particularly voiceless,” Tragos said. “We’re focusing on these kids because they struggle. They’re trying to chart their future. They have just as much potential just as anybody else, but they just aren’t given a chance.”
And ultimately, Tragos and Palermo said their film is also about hope.
“There’s a lot of love with the families in the film, and where there’s love, there’s hope,” Tragos said. “[The film] really isn’t just a kind of bleak expose, or a cautionary tale of what happens when families live in deep poverty in rural America.
We hope it’s deeper than that.”
Tragos’s debut film Be Good, Smile Pretty (2003) won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary. Palermo was the director of photography for two films that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year. Palermo, who is from Jefferson City and lived in Columbia, hopes to submit Rich Hill to Citizen Jane and True/False film festivals.
For now, as they prepare to submit their film for next year’s Sundance, Tragos and Palermo are turning to the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter to raise funds to finish their film. Their goal is to raise $60,000 by Friday, Oct. 4.
“It might sound like a big goal for us, but we felt like these kids and their families deserve a beautiful film,” Tragos said. “We don’t want to do it halfway.”