Some filmmakers can take years finding the right subject for their documentary, but in the case of Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkoe, the directors of “The Last Hillbilly”—which received a special mention in IDFA’s First Appearance section and screens this week at Rendez-vous with French Cinema—theirs just walked up and introduced himself. The French director couple from Lille were eating in a fast-food restaurant in 2013 while on vacation in Kentucky when they were approached by a local man named Brian Ritchie. “He came up to us because he heard us speaking French,” recalls Jenkoe. “He said he wanted to take us to ‘the true Kentucky,’ as he called it—the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.”
“It was a friendship relationship first,” says Bouzgarrou. “Then we got really passionate about finding out what being a hillbilly means. We found his poems. He’s a bit shy about it, but he was very generous with us. All his words, his poems, we were amazed at his talent and the beauty of his poetry. Then we tried to conquer the trust of his family.”
They asked Brian if he’d like to be filmed, and, luckily he was, so, in 2015, the directors returned to Kentucky with their cameras for a shoot that spanned four years. “[Initially] we spent one month with Brian in his trailer amongst the hills with his family and friends,” says Jenkoe. “Basically, we became two new members of the family.”
But as well as being filmed, Brian also wanted to contribute. “He was very eager to be filmed and participate,” says Bouzgarrou.” A big part of the film was working with him, and he was very dedicated to his work. We took some of the poems that he had written. We also gave him a voice recorder so that he could record his text on his own.” A breakthrough came in 2019, when Ritchie gave the co-directors a recording in which he complains about how hillbillies have been marginalized and demonized by American society. “From being a writer and a human being,” says Bouzgarrou, “he slowly began to be a character and performer of the text.”
This blurring of roles was key, while the decision to shoot in 1:33 format was another aesthetic choice made to step away from stereotypical representations of grassroots America. So-called hybrid films have become increasingly common at documentary film festivals, where there are legitimate questions raised as to what constitutes a fiction or a non-fiction film. “But [for] us it was never a question,” explains Bouzgarrou. “Filming the real doesn’t mean it just has to be what you hear and see.”
“Everything is real in the film,” insists Jenkoe. “But it’s a subjective reality. We are in Brian’s mind—we follow his stream of consciousness.” This sense of immersion is reinforced in the soundtrack by noise musician Jay Gambit, which mixes local instruments, Appalachian music folklore and mining noises.
Splitting the film into three parts, the filmmakers start by dealing with how digital society, modernism and individualism have eroded the tradition family unit. They then deal with men like Brian who refuse to move with the times, wanting to keep their traditions—we hear Brian voicing his feelings about society and being disenfranchised. He’s proud to call himself a hillbilly and unhappy that, since the end of the mining industry, there has been no job security for him or men like him. The final part sees his children come to the fore, for whom dad is the ghost of a bygone generation.
More importantly, the filmmakers bend time: the action is made to look like it takes place in 2016, which seemingly places the story in the context of Trump’s presidential bid. “It’s not a film about Trump,” says Bouzgarrou. “It’s a film about the time he was President, for sure. But we had this desire to make this film before Trump was elected. Of course, the Trump election had a strong impact, because white rural America got put in the spotlight. But it’s definitely something we wanted to have in the background. Not Trump himself, but what his election revealed about the fracture in America.”