‘Filmmakers Need to Get Organized’: Symposium Assesses State of Film in Kentucky

When Appalshop, the Whitesburg, Ky.-based media arts center, was founded in 1969, filmmaking wasn’t cheap. Cameras cost upwards of $30,000, and film stock and processing could run about $500 to get ten minutes of film. And although Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had shined a national spotlight on Appalachia, few films were made by locals. Appalshop, which was founded in part to train young Appalachians in film and television production, changed that.

“Our films hit a chord and resonated with people, because they were stories from the region by people from the region,” says Mimi Pickering, who directs Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative. 

Pickering will speak on a panel about documentary filmmaking Friday at the University of Louisville. The panel is part of a day-long symposium, “Film and Filmmaking in Kentucky,” which also features lectures and panel discussions by directors, producers, critics and scholars on the current status of filmmaking in the region, articulate the need for formal criticism and studies, and introduce the public to the industry. The event starts at 8:30 a.m. at the University Club. Here’s a schedule of events

Today, with little more than a cell phone, anyone can shoot and share video across the world. But Pickering, an award-winning documentary filmmaker with a Guggenheim Fellowship and several Kentucky Arts Council fellowships under her belt, says there’s still a need for media training and skills building so Kentucky’s homegrown films can continue to find their audiences.

“Democratizing is great, and the reduction of the cost of doing it is great, but it’s still really important to learn from other films and filmmakers and get a real sense of what’s possible to do,” she says. “It’s more message and what you focus on, and [exploring] the issues of how you treat your subject, how you treat your community, being investigative yet respectful of people.”

Pickering says Appalshop continues to use documentary filmmaking as a leadership development tool, to encourage the region’s youth to consider their communities on a deeper level.

“Sometimes really grassroots, important work may not appear to be sexy or the thing people want to delve into in the moment, and yet it’s really important,” says Pickering.

One of the biggest issues facing any independent filmmaker is distribution – YouTube only goes so far, and art needs an audience. Pickering says her films, like her new documentary on Louisville Civil Rights activist Anne Braden, benefit more from direct contact with invested groups than from the film festival circuit. The film premiered at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and has been screened in classrooms and activism events across the country. She advises making strategic alliances with local and national groups whose missions might align with the documentary’s focus.

“As you’re working on a project, it is important to think about the audience and how it can be used, and how it can potentially influence policy, if that’s what your goal is,” she says.

The other issue is the eternal question of funding. Pickering recalls the days when Kentucky filmmakers had more resources at hand to produce independent films, like the now-defunct KET Fund for Independent Production, which both funded and broadcast independent Kentucky films.

“Filmmakers probably need to get organized again and make the case for continued and increased support for the arts and filmmaking in Kentucky,” says Pickering. “We have to raise the revenue for everything in Kentucky: education, environment, roads, schools, all of it. We’re all a part of having a better, more sustainable, happier, more successful Kentucky.” 

(Image via Shutterstock)

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