Writing

Published in the Appalachian Journal Spring-Summer 2019

LINEFORK

96 minutes

Dir. Vic Rawlings and Jeff Silva

Distribution: Cinema Guild

I went to see Linefork in Amherst, Massachusetts, the home state of Vic Rawlings, one the filmmakers. Both filmmakers, Jeff Silva and Rawlings, were there that night and took questions after the film. I lived a short while in Eastern Kentucky and on one occasion had visited Lee and Opal Sexton, the subject of the film, so I was anxious to see how the region and the Sextons were portrayed, given the history of outsider exploitative media about Appalachia.   

Lee and Opal live in Linefork, a rural community in Eastern Kentucky. The film focuses on their daily routines including trips to the dollar store, telephone calls to friends, outings to music jams and square dances, and daily chores around the house and in the garden.

The film opens with 42 seconds of black as ambient sound of a distant train rises up. On the screen flashes a static camera shot from a bridge above a train track. Sure enough, here comes a train hauling empty coal cars, suggesting to viewers to empty out their preconceived notions about coal country and the rural South. The sound design of this film is outstanding. The train horn rattles the speakers as it passes under–the screeching wheels on the track add the feeling of tension. The shot goes on for two and a half minutes, daring you to look away and inviting you to begin a mediation on this place. It sets the tone for a rich audial story as well as visual one.

The filmmakers create a character of the beautiful landscape of the Eastern Kentucky holler of Linefork with shots of bare trees reflected in water, a rushing creek, a vacant coal mine, a misty morning through the forest. The holler speaks with reverberating dog barks, birds, chickens, wind in the trees, and the rushing creek. The first 17 minutes are slow and deliberate. There is no rush on Linefork, or in the film–creating a tension with viewers who may be used to a faster pace of life. Lee and Opal are first shown working the land, growing their own food in a sizable garden, and raising chickens. Watching this film feels like I’ve gone to visit my grandparents, as we sit with Lee watching The Price is Right or help Opal make biscuits, and feed the dogs. Lee puts in a chew of tobacco, and spits it out. Lee and Opal don’t seem to mind the camera, nor did I feel they were performing for it. They welcome the viewer into their home as they did the camera and its operators. There are no identification cards, composed interviews, or narration in this film, which begs the viewer to pay attention and be curious.

The first sounds of a banjo come in around the 17-minute mark. Lee is a retired coal miner and an accomplished banjo player with a legendary status among the folk music community. He received the Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts in 1999 has recorded numerous albums for JuneAppal, Appalshop’s record label, and has continued a teaching practice. At the very end of the film, viewers learn these things as Sexton reads an entry about himself from a folklife book. The film sweetly focuses equally on Opal. When Lee is teaching banjo or playing with others, Opal is in the same frame, looking on from a rocking chair or communing with other folks at the gatherings. Opal is constantly taking care of their home, garden, animals and Lee’s health. Scenes at the doctor and senior center show the woes and joys of growing old.

The community of Linefork shown on camera is white. The only people of color in the entire film are an African American family on the Maury Povich TV show that Lee watches regularly from his armchair at home. To viewers unfamiliar with the complex history of Appalachia, this film could confirm stereotypes of a homogenous white working class banjo-playing people. It offers no evidence of the complicated, racially diverse evolution of banjo music in America or the multicultural history of coal mining camps in Central Appalachia. The omission of this context denies viewers a complete education about the place in which this film is set and our country itself. But this film is not about music or even about Appalachia. This film is an immersive experience of the life of Lee and Opal. It goes deep, not wide.

The fourth wall is broken at times when Lee asks for opinions from Vic Rawlings, who is operating the camera. Rawlings had established a relationship with Lee in 2004, when he was a banjo student traveling from Massachusetts to learn Lee’s unique style of banjo picking. With no filmmaking experience, Vic made this film out of the respect for the Sextons. The insider/outsider dynamic of this film is kind and loving–and far from exploitive. Jeff Silva comes to this project from the film world with an anthropological approach. Silva is a Boston- based filmmaker and film programmer who has taught at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston among others. Rawlings and Silva met in the mid-’90s in Boston. Both Rawlings and Silva operated the camera, directed, edited, and produced the film using their own funds.

The filmmakers describe this film as an observational documentary. I agree with that description and also would categorize it as an experimental film. There are no composed interviews, no titles, no narration at all. The story relies just as much on the sound design as the dialogue and visuals. It’s a total sensory experience. There is little camera movement. All these choices, I think, help create a presentation that minimizes patronization. It presents the beauty of the landscape, people, and culture of Eastern Kentucky honestly and without caricature. This film is not about spoon-feeding the viewers. If you didn’t read the synopsis of the film before watching it, you may feel a bit in the dark, and that’s okay. The lack of didactic information leaves space for something else: a complex portrait of an aging couple in rural America that asks viewers to hold it with compassion.

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Published in the Appalachian Journal Spring-Summer 2018

Banjo Romantika.

55 min. Film.

Dir. Shara K. Lange.

Prod. Lee Bidgood and Shara K. Lange.

Light Projects Films. 2015.

PBS broadcast 2015-2016 in 40 states.

From the geographical “cradle” of American bluegrass music, Johnson City, Tennessee, comes a documentary about the Czech Republic’s fascination with the genre. Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass and the Czech Imagination was co-produced by two East Tennessee State University faculty members, Shara K. Lange and Lee Bidgood. Lange of the Department of Mass Communication also acts as director, editor, and cinematographer. Bidgood of the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program is also writer and performer.

The film takes viewers back and forth from the legendary bluegrass venue The Down Home in Johnson City to the streets of Prague and countrysides of the Czech Republic following the echo of the banjo. Based on Bidgood’s research, the film introduces the political role of bluegrass in the country’s road to democracy from communism and features multi-generational Czech bluegrass musicians and bands to illustrate a changing community.

The film opens in an American Jeep in the Czech countryside while a banjo kicks off a song sung in Czech titled “Bluegrass Tennessee.” The scene dissolves to Johnson City, Tennessee, where Lee Bidgood and his band are performing this Czech song on the stage of the Down Home. Bidgood establishes his role as a musician and scholar and signals that he will be our guide as we travel to and from the Czech Republic.

The film launches into a series of vignettes combining the styles of cinema verte capturing candid moments, formal interviews, and sparse voice over narration by Bigdood to tell the story.  The cast of characters and places include Robert Krest’an, a musician and singer from the bands Druha Trava and previously Poutníci, bands that played a major role in protesting communism with their music in the 1980s and 1990s; and Marko Cermák, the “father of the Czech banjo” and a member of the influential bluegrass band, The Greenhorns, in the 1970s. Lubos Malina, the banjo player from Druha Trava, demonstrates what he calls the “Czech” sound on the banjo and describes the sound as the Lydian Fourth which is common in Scandinavian music.

The film also features Zdenek Roh, a middle-aged banjo maker and his wife, Zdenka, who live in the highland region in Cerekvicka Village, and the pub The Friends of the Balkan Ranch in Luka nad Jihlavou, which serves as a home for bluegrass jams and idealized American culture with stereotypical paintings of Native Americans in feathered headdresses hanging on the walls. Two local blacksmiths and musicians act as guides to the Friends of the Balkan Ranch.

Finally, the film includes a young band called Reliéf and their banjo and dobro player Zbynek Bures who takes the stage in Hradesín Village at the Hradesínské Struny Bluegrass Festival.

The film travels to and from six locations in the Czech Republic, from a secluded cabin in a Czech forest to a recording studio in Prague. The movement becomes dizzying to viewers without knowledge of Czech geography. A map would have been a helpful visual aid throughout the film.

American historian and journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber offers context and analysis throughout the film. Gruber explains that bluegrass evolved in the country as a way to romanticize American cowboy culture perpetuated mainly by “tramps” and “rogue” boy scouts in the 1920s playing American folk songs on 4-string tenor banjos and guitars. In the 1950s the American Forces Network broadcast Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe records on a bluegrass radio show from Munich, Germany, which influenced a generation of bluegrass players in the Czech Republic. The enthusiasm deepened when Pete Seegar gave a concert in Prague in 1964 that was broadcast over the radio.

Older Czech musicians in the film explain that it was illegal to have anything American because of communism, so those interested in learning bluegrass turned to the black market or made what they needed like fingerpicks. Marko Cermák’s generation reveled in the joy of discovering a music that was forbidden and enjoyed camaraderie as a result.

The film concludes with the newest generation of bluegrass bands on stage at a festival performing songs they wrote in English. Gruber and other characters resolve that bluegrass has taken on a different meaning now since politics in the country have changed. Marko Cermák closes the film by saying, “we didn’t do it for fame, profit or business, it came from our hearts,” and such a sentiment is felt in the intentions of the filmmakers too.

The concept and story of this film is fascinating. Bidgood and Lange act like a personal tour guide taking the viewer well off the beaten path into the fringes of Eastern Europe exploring American culture and identity through the lens of the Czechs. It’s an exciting journey. With each shift between town and character, Bidgood and his band showcase the music of the Czech bluegrass community, played and sung with exceptional professionalism. However, because of the focus on Bidgood’s interpretation of the songs, the music feels disconnected from the characters and locations. Hearing recordings and seeing more live performances of the bands and musicians featured, especially the older ones could have helped illustrate the Czech bluegrass scene more effectively. Because the majority of the characters in the film are white men, the film begs such questions as “what do the filmmakers know—or what have they observed—about the ways that gender, class, race, and sexuality intersect  in the Czech bluegrass scene?” Short clips of present-day jam sessions were helpful but shot poorly with too little light and shaky camera movements. The editing and cinematography had moments of beauty and creativity but also scenes that are jarring, awkwardly cut, and abrupt, which is distracting. The story suffers from too many places and too many characters packed into too short of a film, resulting in the central problem: a confusing structure.

A general understanding of the history of American bluegrass and the politics of the Czech Republic is recommended before watching Banjo Romantika.

The film scratches the surface of the complexity of international bluegrass communities and the influence of American culture outside of the United States. The project will ultimately inspire curiosity among bluegrass musicians and fans as well as students of American studies and global studies.

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