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    Stranger With a Camera

    Intruder alert

    "Stranger with a Camera" finds unexpected insights in the 30-year-old murder of a documentary filmmaker who had come to expose the poverty of eastern Kentucky.


    A Canadian filmmaker, in Kentucky to reveal the shocking poverty of Appalachia to the outside world, asks a tired coal miner for permission to film him dozing on his front porch at the end of the day. In the middle of the shoot, the man's landlord drives up, tells the crew to get the hell off his land, and starts shooting. As the crew hustles back to its car with heavy equipment in tow, the director is shot though the chest, collapses and dies.

    Directed by: Elizabeth Barret.

    Related links: Official site
    Docfest 2000
    The Directors Guild of America Theater
    110 West 57th Street
    (212) 668-1100
    Sun., June 4, 2000, 5 p.m. Tickets $10

    Now another filmmaker, Elizabeth Barret, who grew up in that area, has revived this 30-year-old murder as the subject of "Stranger with a Camera," a skillful and interesting documentary that seeks to understand what in the cultures of Kentucky and the outside world led to this horrifying crime. Horrifying to us, that is — but not to the people of Kentucky, many of whom rallied around the killer and claimed that the meddling documentarian got what he deserved.

    Barret describes a kind of poverty vogue in the 1960s which brought waves of journalists to Appalachia. "Almost every time you looked up, there was a newspaper reporter, or a magazine reporter, or a television reporter or crew coming through," recalls the local newspaper publisher. The journalists drew politicians and the politicians sent well-intentioned young volunteers, and the residents began to bristle at the condescension of the outside world. The Kentuckians, though aware that poverty existed in their communities, still resented being held up to the rest of the country as a backward culture. Pictures of poor families — like the one above, taken from a 1960s television report — came to stand for all of Appalachian society.

    Victim Hugh O'Connor. in Stranger With a Camera  
    Victim Hugh O'Connor.
    Barret criticizes the locals' insularity and hostility toward outsiders, but she also helps the viewer understand their feeling of being under a media siege and being held up as an international object of pity if not ridicule. At the same time, she emphasizes the economics of mining which accounted for some of the poverty, as the distant corporations that owned the Kentucky coal mines paid the workers just a few dollars a day — before eliminating many of their jobs altogether through mechanized strip-mining.

      Killer Hobart Ison. in Stranger With a Camera
      Killer Hobart Ison.
    At the same time, this film explores questions about documentary filmmaking itself. The reports of the 1960s gave the outside world a tunnel-vision image of Appalachia — all toothless adults, scraggly kids and rusted auto bodies. Filmmakers "mined the images the way the companies mined the coal," Barret charges. And their work led outsiders to think they could parachute in and bestow American prosperity upon a grateful population without truly understanding the place and its people. Barret clearly admires the murder victim, Hugh O'Connor — she even structures part of her film in the same style as his innovative 1960s work — but this new film is a cautionary tale about the difference between seeing and understanding.

    MAY 31, 2000

    Reader comments on Stranger With a Camera:

  • [no subject]   from Rosanna, Jan 4, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Pat, Feb 15, 2007

  • Post a comment on "Stranger With a Camera"