Review: The Last Hillbilly
- Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkoe’s documentary gifts the viewers with a poetic, puzzling and disorienting account of a family living in the heart of the Appalachians
“So you want to know about hillbillies. Well, you do and you don’t, because you already know about hillbillies. You have all the stories that you tell, the books that you’ve read... Everybody knows we’re ignorant, uneducated, poor, violent, racist, inbred... And it’s all true” says Brian Ritchie, who claims to be the “last hillbilly,” while talking straight to the camera. Said scene comes 20 minutes into Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkoe’s new documentary The Last Hillbilly, awarded Cannes 2020’s ACID selection label and now one of the international premieres at this year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), in the First Appearance section.
We are in Talcum, Eastern Kentucky and for decades Brian’s family has been living in the heart of the Appalachians. Divided into three chapters respectively called “Under the Family Tree”, “The Waste Land” and “Land of Tomorrow”, the film is composed of unique episodes and moments that gradually tell of the simple yet harsh everyday life of Brian and his family, torn by the tension between the heritage and customs of a legendary past, and the unavoidable process of modernisation – and digitalisation – hitting his native land much later than in many other parts of the world. In one scene, Brian argues that during his childhood, he was lucky to be “the last free kid of America,” and talks about the 1990s and his parents’ strict education as something as remote as the time of the American frontier. He believes that he was part of “another world”, once which the kids listening to his speech by the bonfire will never be able to experience or even understand.
The documentary is enriched by Brian’s pensive and very lucid voice-over as he tries to connect his present lifestyle, troubled but immersed in nature, and that of the three generations preceding him, made of independent pioneers and mountaineers. In a disorienting but overall absorbing fashion, the two directors are able to provide an account of a vanishing world that perhaps would have further benefited from a more coherent, intelligible narrative structure. The mountain life of the family, lensed by Jenkoe, is almost entirely seen through images in an Academy aspect ratio, probably with the intent of depicting a microcosm stuck in the 1930s, when said format emerged. Moreover, solitude, harsh landscapes and animals, whether companions or prey, are the protagonists of many long, contemplative shots. The bleakness and isolation of these places is also aptly reflected by the eerie, disturbing score composed by Jay Gambit, who further accentuates the grand narrative of a decadent universe. This gloomy mood is only briefly lit up by the conversations and interactions among the children, who timidly attempt to imagine a future outside of Talcum, or at least pursuing different ambitions and professions from those of their ancestors.
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