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Survival and Resistance: Appalshop’s First 40 Years

Survival and resistance: Appalshop's First 40 Years

By Rend Smith

This article is from the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC).

Four decades ago, in a Whitesburg, Kentucky storefront that once held a
“tire supermarket,” Herb E. Smith, a seventeen-year-old member of the
Appalachian Film Workshop—Appalshop, for short—learned to work the
16-millimeter Arriflex-S camera.

The Arri weighed twenty pounds and had a battery belt. Though it
would be considered cumbersome by modern standards, in 1971 the camera
offered its wielder something no other camera did: mobility. Here was a
chance to walk the streets of a small coal town and ask people what
they thought of the Vietnam War; here was the freedom to trek up steep,
lush inclines of Kentucky wilderness to roll footage on an expert
dulcimer player.

When it came time to edit the camera’s footage, things were a
little less upscale. Smith and other young filmmakers cut the 16mm film
on a hand-cranked editing suite they called the squawk box.

Back then, Appalshop was more of a hangout, Smith remembers. The
filmmakers that made up its core, all seventeen-to-twenty years old,
spent a good deal of time playing cards, smoking, acting rowdy, and
listening to the “White Album” or Three Dog Night. But they also got a
lot of work done, editing into the small hours. They were dedicated to
making films about their culture, he recollects, something they viewed
as a matter of survival and resistance.

“By connecting to the traditional culture of the Appalachian region,”
explains Smith in an email, “we were opting out of the
military-industrial machine that was bombing peasants in Southeast

These days, with twenty-six staff members, Appalshop has swapped
out its storefront for a sprawling media arts center. Replete with a
series of sober offices, the place feels nothing like a hangout. The
shared laser printers in the hallway pump out a continuing stream of
grant proposals, while two front desk receptionists busily field and
direct phone calls. The Arri and squawk box have been shelved for
digital cameras and computers.

Though Smith says he misses the “craft” involved in using the old
equipment, the 56-year-old has modernized. He’s currently shooting a
project about community organizers on DVCam and editing it on his Mac.

But distribution has changed too, so media artist Nick Szuberla, a spry
35-year-old transplant from the Midwest who wears a knit cap indoors,
keeps hounding Smith about viral videos, popular pieces of online media
that get passed from web user to web user. Szuberla brings up the
concept so often Smith recently put some video he shot of Appalachian
community activist Cecil Roberts (speaking at an Obama rally) online,
where it garnered a healthy amount of hits. “Appalshop has always been
about communication,” says Szuberla, “so we always have to be willing
to reexamine the way we’re connecting with our audience.”

Smith doesn’t disagree. He says he’s trying to learn about the emerging
platforms, but usually concentrates more on the shooting and editing.
“Still, I’m glad to see Nick and others figure out the YouTube-type
work,” he says.

However, the “YouTube-type work” being done by Appalshop
“newcomers” (Szuberla has been there for a decade, but at Appalshop
that’s a drop in the bucket compared to some), goes way beyond
uploading clips onto a popular video site. A co-founder of Thousand
Kites, a massive multimedia arts endeavor to reform the U.S. prison
system, Szuberla is dipping into everything from social media to email
blasts to computerized call centers.

The patio just off the shared workplace kitchen in the Appalshop
building looks out onto green ruffles of mountain and smells of
cigarettes, fresh coffee, and—occasionally—Krispy Kreme donuts. Since
arriving at Appalshop, Szuberla has tried to stay away from ciggys and
donuts, but doesn’t mind slamming down the coffee, a beverage he
jokingly calls “the brown water,” to keep his energy up.

In the ’90s, Szuberla and fellow artist Amelia Kirby hosted a
hip-hop show on WMMT, Appalshop’s community radio station. The show
grew popular among the mostly African-American inmate populations of
Wallens Ridge and Red Onion, two nearby mountain-region “supermaxes,”
super-maximum security prisons, staffed by white locals. Soon the DJs
were receiving letter after letter from distressed prisoners who
accused their guards of daily human rights violations, everything from
shouting racist hate speech to doling out torture. 

Eventually the duo shot a doc about Wallens Ridge (Up the Ridge,
2004) and the suspicious deaths of two prisoners there. Szuberla and
Kirby toured the country with the film. The issue seemed to strike a
chord with audiences. Two regularly exploited groups—poor, rural,
Appalachians and poor, inner-city African Americans—were being pitted
against each other in a game set up by prison profiteers. Sometimes
audience members cried, sometimes they argued, but their reactions were
always strong. “They wanted to know more,” says Szuberla.

The documentary makers began plugging the contacts they gathered on
the road into a database. They envisioned building a national community
around prison issues, one that would cut across boundaries, include
prisoners, guards, prisoners’ families, activists, students, and church
members. Everyone.

From there, Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project addressing the
prison system, gradually emerged. The WMMT radio show Kirby and
Szuberla started became a vehicle through which prisoners’ family
members, marooned in far away cities, could call in and send messages
of hope to inmates. Email blasts and social networking sites like
Facebook and MySpace came in particularly handy. Kites needed to
communicate with callers; interested parties could tune into the radio
broadcasts over the web; and activists could arrange to have the show
mirrored on local stations.

Soon other artists got involved. Roadside Theater, Appalshop’s
longtime theater troupe, got into the action by delving into the
personal stories Thousand Kites had collected via radio shows,
interviews, and prisoner letters. Roadside structured these stories
into a play, posted the script online, and began encouraging people to
perform it as a way of opening up a discussion around the criminal
justice system in their area. It worked. There have been multiple
performances across the country since the script’s release.

Like all other aspects of Thousand Kites, the play is being plugged
into something Szuberla has dubbed a “digital story feedback loop.” In
this loop, he explains, “Everything connects. The audience is both the
producer and the participant.” Asked to clarify, he describes the
intriguingly interrelated system: At the end of the performance of a
Kites play, which is made up of criminal justice stories told by
ordinary people, audience members are asked to call a toll-free number
and tell their own. An answering machine records these narratives. The
stories are then converted into digital audio downloads which are
posted on the Kites website. Later, this audio is merged into an online
radio broadcast, which is repackaged for traditional radio and
broadcast nationally. (Here the “loop” in digital-story-feedback-loop
kicks in.) The radio stories are then fused into a new version of the
Kites play, and the process begins again.

A visit to the Kites site, thousandkites.org,
reveals a sophisticated platform for a continually expanding
project—everything from audio of prison poetry and video of live
performances to a continuing rush of blog posts and events listings.
The site’s “about” page points to the need to “break down the silence
surrounding the U.S. criminal justice system through storytelling and
listening” as a way to “find effective solutions to over-incarceration
in communities,” such as advocacy campaigns and organizing.

Szuberla is excited about everything this work entails. “We’ve
developed a campaign model,” he says, “and it starts with grounding the
work here in Appalachia, asking ourselves what our story is and
proceeding from there. We create the production (video, radio, film,
theater) at the same time we focus on the process of how this work will
create movements and strategies for positive social change.” In 2007,
Kites held a national summit of grassroots and policy stakeholders to
develop outreach goals and communication objectives, which were then
infused into Kites' work to reach a broad national audience. Szuberla
adds, “Through partnerships, we gain policy objectives, which we then
translate into our communication work, taking our projects and content
into a new realm.”

Though doing this kind of national alliance building isn’t part of
Appalshop’s typical work, Szuberla believes it should be. “We can’t go
it alone in rural America,” he says. “The environmental, economic, and
social forces at work in our community are global, and our work has to
be also.”

As an example of Appalachian issues gone global, Szuberla points to
a time when, during the recent presidential election, the world’s media
focused on Appalachia as a touchstone for racist cultural attitudes.
Some of the youth involved with Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute
chose to speak to the issue by putting together an audio commentary.
“The youth producers got on the air and said that things were not as
simplistic as they seemed, that there was a diversity of experiences in
the area,” Szuberla recalls. The teenagers FTPed the audio over to
National Public Radio, which carried the piece. “Appalshop is staying
true to its values,” says Szuberla, “but we also see the possibilities
to expand the effect and impact of our work.”

“The majority of the funding for our project,” he reveals, “is
connected to strategic use, policy work, and outreach activities.
Looking at the documentary side of Thousand Kites, we have raised more
funds around how we would use the film than we did for actual
production costs. This is the reality of the funding environment for
media work, and it bodes well for those looking to do social justice
work grounded in issues and connected to movements.”

Herb Smith sees in Thousand Kites and similar, newer Appalshop
projects “both a clear continuity and major changes.” He says, “The
founding idea of allowing a broad range of people to get their hands on
expensive media equipment is the same. We’ve been pretty consistent
over the forty years in that work.”

He adds, “We are still building Appalshop. As individuals, we draw
on the resources of the organization, and we build those resources.
Everyone is expected to do both, and the people who come here—and
stay—learn how to be good at both.”

Though Szuberla definitely sees himself as part of a changing
Appalshop, he’s quick to indicate that Thousand Kites isn’t the only
Appalshop project breaking new ground.

“If you walked around our building, you would find youth producers
working on a commentary for NPR with a partner in Oakland, a screening
by a visiting filmmaker from Jakarta as part of a three-year exchange
between Appalshop and Indonesia, and a radio project that is training
local residents to produce their own content, along with a lot of data
entry around contacts and folks we want to communicate with.”

“Appalshop is a very different organization,” Herb Smith says, “but
the organizing concepts are the same. The need to have a cadre of
people who are using these tools to deal with the problems that our
communities face, and to celebrate life in these mountains, that need
is the same today as it was forty years ago.”  

REND SMITH is freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. He
has written for Washington City Paper, Dayton City Paper, The Hill Rag,
AlterNet, and many other publications.

©2008 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.