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Tracy Tragos talks Kansas City ‘Rich Hill’ premiere and the impact of hope

No matter our station in life, no matter our inheritance; wealthy or impoverished we would wither without the enriching support of someone who sees us, that someone who loves us.

Truth. For the individual. A family. Or for a town.

For “Rich Hill,” a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning documentary, Tracy Droz Tragos and cousin Andrew Droz Palermo team to examine the lives of three boys and their families in a small southern Missouri town.

The legacy of Rich Hill is that of a once booming industrial metropolis. But with the end of WWII, the resources faded, leaving the town and its residence close to barren.

Rich Hill has yet to recover its abundance, but holds tight to hope. With dreams, direction and some coveted community support, this town and the three boys that represent it in the film could be resurrected to new heights.

Tragos and select families from the movie travel to Kansas City on Friday, August 8, to share “Rich Hill” with local audiences. Join her at 6:30 p.m. at Screenland Crown Center to view the film. The screening is followed by a Q&A.

Read what Ms. Tragos had to say about the film, the kids of Rich Hill and what the experience has meant to them all.

I did not get to see Rich Hill at Sundance this year. How was that experience for you?
It was incredible. There were a lot of feelings. One of the boys in the film, his mom passed away just days before we got there. That was a real blow. It made it all really bitter sweet. We brought all the families out. We all kind of went in together and it was sad that she couldn’t be there.

At the same time, the kids were able to have just a really good time. Sometimes I would catch myself because I’m sure I was kind of a wet blanket. I’d go over to them and check in and say how are you doing and how are doing now? They were having a good time. They walked up and down Main St putting posters up.

They called themselves the Rich Hill Posse.

We had no idea that we would be as honored as we were. It was amazing the way audiences responded and the way that the boys and the families were received. It was a hugely life changing experience. They were belonging and I was honored.

It’s being well received. People are responding now that the film has been made. It’s won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary. What do you think audiences are responding to?
I hope they’re responding from an emotional level. We really wanted this to be an immersive film that took them to this tiny little town that we love. We brought them into homes, you know, homes that we normally kind of drive by and don’t stop and consider what’s going on for those folks.

We wanted to say let’s go inside. Let’s get to know these people really up close from that place, that certain intimate place. It’s a lot harder for families like that to be dismissed. That’s what we hoped we might be able to achieve. It’s deeply gratifying that some audiences really are moved and were able to be a part of a pretty meaningful conversation.

We’re being used in a workshop with the Missouri Department of Social Services where we have a six week workshop with different social workers. There are some pretty amazing things that are coming out of it. We took a bit of a risk in making a film that, a documentary, that didn’t have statistics and didn’t have an expert but we wanted audiences to respond on kind of an emotional level. It’s cool that we can have a decent impact despite the fact that we haven’t wrapped our film in that policy stuff. It might even make it more acceptable to people.

Somebody has to begin the conversation. Initially I was surprised, but then not after reading things, that there was a little bit of push-back from the townspeople or some of the townspeople of Rich Hill. I’m wondering if the residents changed their minds or their fears about how the doc portrays them or what the documentary can do for their town.
It’s not specifically about Rich Hill. Rich Hill could be any town. The circumstances there were pretty average. It would be amazing if we could have impact directly to the town. We have had impact specifically with the kids. But there are so many towns that don’t have movies made about them and so many kids that don’t have movies made about them and it’s like what about those guys?

In terms of the push-back, most of that was around our Kickstarter campaign before we had finished the film and before anybody saw it. There was just a lot of reaction around the trailer and kind of “what was the film gonna be about” and I hope when the townsfolk have an opportunity to see it that they will be pleased with the film and feel like we’ve done a good job.

We’re premiering tomorrow in Kansas City. That’s the first time we’ll be in a theater and we’ll be there all week and have many showings every day. Rich Hill residents are getting fifty percent off to make sure they have a chance to see it.

The film accomplishes a larger goal for it to be transformative for someone else. Not just for the people and for the kids, but for business people and people who can reach into their lives. Congratulations on that.

You had some ties to Rich Hill. You went there. Your cousins were there. You visited often as a child. Is that specifically how you found this story?
For me it was a hugely formative place. My grandparents who lived there were like surrogate parents to me. My father was killed when I was very young. When school was out I would go to Rich Hill because my mom was a working mom. My grandmother was a third grade school teacher and my grandfather was a mail carrier and they were really beloved and well known in a way. A lot of it was on their good name that we were able to have the access that we did.

We just had to not do anything to violate that trust and I hope we didn’t ultimately. But there was a feeling when we knocked on these doors and we went home with the kids, I don’t know. I remember Andrew’s mom was just so surprised that anybody was knocking on her door at all. It’s not like folks knocked on her door ever or that anybody was interested in hearing what was going on for her in her life. She really wanted to talk about it. We found that with each of the kids that we focused on and their families that there was a desire to tell their story and to say, yes, these are the challenges that they face.

With the initial backlash why did the subjects decide to participate? I assume they were in it for the opportunity to be heard.
Yea, I think there’s a sense and it was a long process. We became very close. We spent a lot of time the past year and a half with them. It wasn’t like you come in once and you go out, you know, one interview. It’s a conversation. It’s something that evolves. At some point they were collaborators in their own right – in this effort, in the telling of their own stories.

That’s what we wanted. We didn’t want it to be about us. We didn’t want to assert ourselves. You hear my voice at the end of the film, but that was a way to give Harley a nod and have him turn the tables on us. But it wasn’t about us. It wasn’t about the making of the film. It was about them and them having a voice.

At any point did any of them become afraid of the process? Did any of them say “you know what, I might be having second thoughts”? You have an award-winning team. You’ve got all these great degrees and sure you’ve got ties to the town, but were they intimidated at all?
I don’t think so. We weren’t a gigantic crew. For the most part it was me and my cousin Andrew and Andrew was behind the camera. And I was the one having conversations. We didn’t do these sort of sit down, confrontational interviews. We were just in and out of conversation and in and out of observation.

More than anything at the end of the day, the end of a long day it would be Andrew and me that would need to take a break. We’re the ones who needed to just kind of close our eyes and reflect. It was often not the case that the kids were done. They wanted to keep hanging out. They wanted to keep talking. There wasn’t ever a moment where they didn’t want to keep doing this.

Like with Harley and what he reveals. We talked to him a lot about that. Imagine what it’s going to be like to be in a theater with a bunch of people who hear what has happened for you. Imagine that you’re sitting at home and it comes up on television. Imagine what that will be and if that’s something that you would want out there. He was quite clear that he did want to share that.

That were a kind of sense that he hadn’t talked much about it and he wanted to get it off his chest. He wanted somebody to bear witness to the fact that this had happened to him. This is why his mom was incarcerated and he wanted it out there.

Again, it’s not like we were there one day and it was on television the next day. It was a long conversation.

You made this film with your cousin. How was it for you to create with a family member?
It was pretty great. Andrew is an amazing cinematographer and I was so excited to work with him and collaborate. It was a plus that he was a family member so we could stay at our aunt and uncles. For a while he moved in with me and he had a great relationship with my daughters. He was kind of the uncle they never had since I don’t have any sisters or brothers. It was a wonderful collaboration.

Did that dynamic affect how you approached the families of Rich Hill?
I think so. They knew that we were cousins. We had a little bit of an age spread. He’s a guy and I’m a woman. There was sort of a notion of, um, I think the kids could see me as a little bit of a mother figure. The moms could relate to me because I’m a mom. We could bond on that score. Andrew was more of one of the guys. The kids responded to that.

And being family, did it also inform how you shaped their stories for the film?
You mean because Andrew and I were family did it, um…I mean we talked a lot about what was to be celebrated in the homes and what we appreciated and what we saw and experienced that we didn’t necessarily have in our own families.

Especially in Andrew’s, there was so much love and affection and playfulness at times. I think [my cousin] and I both were deeply moved by that. We talked a lot about it and in comparison to our own experiences in our own lives. He and I both had different circumstances in our immediate families – me with the death of my father and his parents divorced when he was pretty young. He was in large part raised by his mom and he felt that longing. Both of us. For intact family, a stronger bond. That definitely informed the way we approached this film and what we saw, the kind of love that we witnessed not just the hardships and challenges.

Thank you for that. I just have one last question. Has the film done for Rich Hill what you intended?
For the town of Rich Hill?

I’m assuming you had some desire that you had for the town that you used the name for the film, that you wanted to tell this story. Like it says all over the internet there are lots of small towns, lots of formerly industrial towns that kind of “dried up”…
Yea, yea. I hope what we’ve done is shed light on a community. I hope that shedding light…wonderful things will come from it. We don’t entirely know yet. We’ve made it sort of the poster child, this town, for a lot of towns that are struggling. I hope that that light being shown only brings good things. I certainly love the community. I hope they are celebrated for what is beautiful because there are aspects of the film where we want them to take that away.

We had that experience. I screened it for a school in Los Angeles. It happened to be an all-girls school. The reaction of these girls was “you know I want to move to the country. I want to turn off my I-phone. I want to roll in the grass.” Some of that is just wanting to celebrate the love and the family.

It is not just gloom and doom. There are a lot of resources in the families and a lot of resources for the community. But there are going to be a lot of obstacles for development. Just like there’re a lot of obstacles for these kids.

Was there anything you wanted us to know that I didn’t ask?
I have great hope for these kids and their families, but it’s not just going to be a matter of these kids working hard and making great choices at every opportunity. It’s going to take people who care about them and mentors and social support. My deepest hope is that this film will encourage that kind of community and taking care of them. So, they’re not dismissed as tough guys from the wrong side of the track. ▪