By Michael Coleman

This blog article was originally published by the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.

March 22, 2023

Since returning to Appalachia to pursue a doctorate at Virginia Tech, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with the region that was so impactful in the formulation of my identity. One of the most invigorating ways to do so has been immersing myself in the literature from the region. As I become increasingly familiar with Appalachian literature specifically, and rural literature more broadly, there is one type of statement that always catches my attention. The statement reads something like, “I know [insert rural place] is complicated, but . . .” At this point, the author will apologetically explain how and why they have come to love the rural place they are writing about. Whether their love is borne of the natural beauty, the pace of the lifestyle, or the friendly people, the author is assuring the reader that they do not agree with certain cultural elements associated with rural places across America. At face value, maybe there is nothing wrong with this kind of sentence. After all, I feel like I could write a similar sentence about much of what enamors me. Yet, in many ways, this kind of sentence feels like both a virtue signal designed to keep the author’s identity at arm’s length from their rural subject matter and a capitulation to mainstream media depictions of rural America.

Painted as racially homogenous and philosophically monolithic, media depictions of rural places have largely lacked a nuanced gaze. While this is a frustrating reality, the deeply entrenched narratives created by this often-vapid coverage effectively demonstrate the power of media narratives. Thus, as I and staff members at The Center for Rural Education sought to present a counternarrative of rurality, we quickly coalesced around the idea of using short films. After an arduous selection process, we finalized a list of ten films to screen for the inaugural Rural Film Festival, which took place on March 1st at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Virginia.  The intent of the Rural Film Festival was to celebrate and amplify rural people, places, and cultures. The films explored an array of topics, including identity, foodways, and the relationship between rurality and social activism. Though the films were certainly not holistic in their representation, they served to offer a counternarrative to oft-repeated stereotypes bestowed upon rural America. John Prine’s “Summer’s End” provoked festival-goers to think about how we engage in hard conversations about the places we love; a variety of short films from The Appalachian Retelling Project reminded the audience of the diversity present in Appalachia; and a film from Appalshop provided those in attendance a unique view of modern-day activism in rural Kentucky. Furthermore, panelists Jon Dance, Tameka Grimes, Jeff Mann, and Emily Satterwhite provided a poignant follow-up to the films as they demonstrated to the audience what reverence for rural spaces looks like in scholarship, activism, and creative pursuits.

Despite the powerful lessons taken from the films and panelists, when I reflect on the evening, I often find my mind drifting to the audience. As I handed out the concession tickets, I was struck by the different backgrounds of those who walked through the doors. Undergraduate students, graduate students, university personnel, Lyric Theatre members, and people from across Montgomery County and beyond were in attendance. In my view, the success of the event was dependent upon the experiences had by the approximately 100 attendees. Initially, I had told a local reporter I had two primary goals for the event. For those from rural places, I was hoping the films and discussion would prove to be a dignity-affirming event. An evening where their culture and lifestyle would be amplified and celebrated. For those not from rural places, I was hoping the evening would provide them with the lens to critically interrogate popular depictions of rural places, checking for reductive language and paternalistic points of view.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize my hope for the evening was maybe a bit simpler. In many ways, when I view each of the ten films presented, I realize the night was about love. The people, places, and things we love are all complicated. They are dynamic and ever-changing in a world that demands constant adaptation. Some of the adaptations we arrive at are more palatable than others, and some lead to a more sheepish kind of love. A love that requires qualifying statements like, “I know [insert rural place] is complicated, but . . .” Whether or not you feel the need to qualify the rural place you love with that statement, the stories told, panelists featured, and audience members present affirm that rural places—places rife with compassion, community, and challenges—are worth celebrating.

Films Screened

Michael Coleman is a father, social worker, and doctoral student in the Foundations of Education program at Virginia Tech. His research interests include amplifying community voices to create more inclusive, accepting schools. As a graduate assistant for the Center for Rural Education, he curated this spring’s Rural Film Festival. Michael feels he was shaped by place, with two of the most influential places being Knoxville, Tennessee and Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

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