'Rich Hill' Gives a Voice to Rural Missouri

By Abby Olcese 9-17-2014
Andrew peers out at the Missouri countryside from the back of a truck.

“God has to be busy with everyone else. And hopefully he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s going to break my heart if it don’t.”

So says Andrew, one of the three teenage subjects of the documentary Rich Hill, currently playing in theaters across the country and available on Video on Demand. While film refrains from any sermonizing on poverty, or any direct call to action from its audience, it’s mighty hard for socially minded Christians to hear these words and not feel compelled to react. Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s documentary is an unflinching portrait of poverty in rural America, and its sympathetic portrayals give heartbreaking examples of neighbors in need. 

The film follows a year in the lives of three boys: Andrew, Harley, and Appachey. They don’t know each other, but they have much in common. Besides living in the small town of Rich Hill, Mo., all three come from troubled families living well below the poverty line. Andrew is the most hopeful of the group. He’s got a family he loves, and a father who means well, but whose unrealistic dreams keep the family moving from place to place and dodging unpaid bills. Thirteen-year-old Appachey and 15-year-old Harley, however, come from darker situations. Harley is a victim of sexual abuse (his mother is in jail for attempting to kill the man responsible), while Appachey’s violent behavioral issues are simply too much to handle for his single mom, overwhelmed with his siblings and a dilapidated house filled to the rafters with junk.

There are many remarkable things about Rich Hill, but perhaps the most remarkable is the openness with which the boys and their families interact with the camera. All three treat it like a personal diary. Harley, Andrew, and Appachey reveal hopes, dreams and secrets—in some cases deeply personal information they admit they wouldn’t normally bring up. It never feels coaxed. The filmmakers’ willingness to listen rather than judge appears to have allowed them almost unrestricted access, and it gives the film amazing authenticity and detail.

It’s in that authenticity that Rich Hill becomes a plea for change that reaches beyond political affiliation. In Proverbs, we’re told “The rich have many friends, the poor have none.” Audiences only need to see the injustice of Harley’s situation, witness the lack of options given to Appachey’s mother when he has violent episodes in school, or hear the waning optimism in Andrew’s voice to understand that these are people we’re called to help.

Rich Hill does an excellent job of giving a voice to the voiceless, and it’s pretty clear, given the intimacy Tragos and Palermo achieve, just how voiceless their subjects feel. These are people who most of us write off when we encounter them in real life (and we do encounter them). When Andrew says God must be busy with everyone else, we ought to realize that he’s not just waiting for a miraculous intervention. He’s waiting for us to answer the call.

For more information on the film, including locations where it is currently playing, visit www.richhillfilm.com.

Abby Olcese is Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.

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"'Rich Hill' Gives a Voice to Rural Missouri"
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