Roy Silver wrote:
Film on Appalachia receiving acclaim Documentary recounts slaying of
By JUDY JONES, The Courier-Journal
WHITESBURG, Ky. -- A new film about a 32-year-old killing in
Letcher County is receiving critical acclaim for its depiction of a
dark moment in Appalachian history.
"Stranger with a Camera," a documentary by Appalachian native
Elizabeth Barret, recounts how Hugh O'Connor, a Canadian
filmmaker hired to make a documentary on poverty, racism and
the environment, was killed in Letcher County in 1967.
The film premiered at Appalshop in Whitesburg two weeks ago
and played at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last week.
O'Connor and his film crew were taking photographs of coal
miners in Eastern Kentucky in September 1967, when a
landowner named Hobart Ison confronted the crew, ordered
them off his property and fired on them, killing O'Connor
Barret said the slaying created a venue to explore the issue of
media images: how people feel about how they are depicted by
the media, how media images are used and how they are
understood by viewers.
The issue is of particular concern in Appalachia, where images
of poverty have provoked both sympathy and contempt
throughout the country, as well as outrage among locals who
say they are being stereotyped.
To Barret, all those problems came to a tragic conclusion when
Ison, an eccentric bachelor, gunned down O'Connor, a
"I wanted to explore this incident that reflects a dark side of
where I live," said Barret. "As a filmmaker I felt that O'Connor's
death and my community's response to it had something to
David Whisnant, professor of English and American studies at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an authority
of Appalachian culture, called the film one of the best
documentaries ever made.
"This film is way beyond everything that has ever been done on
the issue of where images come from and how images are
perceived from different perspectives," said Whisnant, who also
teaches film documentaries. "I hope it gets the recognition it
Barret, along with co-producer Judi Jennings, spent 10 years
working on the project. A variety of foundations, including the
Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance for Young Artists and
Writers and Women in Film all helped produce the film.
The film was well-received at several pre-screenings this
summer, including a showing at the New York Film/Video
Council in April and at Ohio State University in June.
It is scheduled to be shown as part of the documentary film
competition at the Sundance Film Festival, to take place Jan.
20-30 in Salt Lake City.
Barret grew up in Hazard, a 40-minute drive from where Ison
shot O'Connor, but in a very different circumstance from either
The daughter of a Hazard lawyer, Barret was a cheerleader and
a candidate for homecoming queen. But the Appalachia where
she grew up was a powder keg. President Lyndon Johnson had
launched the War on Poverty, and journalists and film crews
were combing the hills of Appalachia.
The late Harry Caudill, a Whitesburg lawyer whose book "Night
Comes to the Cumberlands" attracted national attention to
Letcher County, was host to journalists and filmmakers hoping
to bring change to the mountains. At the same time, surface
mining became widespread, creating a new and volatile tension
between local people and coal companies.
Letcher County was primed for a violent incident.
"There was this sense that something violent was going to
happen, someplace, somewhere," Barret said.
Barret's research showed that -- contrary to her early
assumptions -- the film crew didn't provoke the attack. The
crew was driving through Letcher County when it stopped to
film a coal miner rocking his baby on his front porch. The miner
was Mason Eldridge, who was renting a home from Ison.
Because crew members had been warned that mountain people
could be violent toward trespassers, they asked Eldridge's
permission to take his picture. He agreed.
The crew members thought they were photographing an
abandoned mining camp, but Barret said the homes had been
recently built in the style of camp houses. Ison was known for
being particularly protective of his property, which was in
dispute because a proposed dam would have caused it to be
Barret said that Ison thought depictions of poverty would tilt
the scale in favor of the dam and cause him to lose his land to
As the crew was photographing Eldridge, someone went to tell
Ison about the filming. Ison got in his 1949 Buick, drove to
Eldridge's home, got out of his car with a pistol, and yelled at
the film crew to get off his property.
The film crew started retreating, trying to disassemble the
clunky camera equipment of that era. Ison fired a warning shot
into the air. As O'Connor was dragging a heavy camera battery
across the road, Ison fired into his chest.
Local people rallied around Ison, offering to pay his bail and
even baking cakes for him. Ison eventually pleaded guilty to
voluntary manslaughter and served one year in prison for the
"Stranger with a Camera" offers comments from Ison's family,
attorney and friends, but also includes interviews with
O'Connor's daughter and colleagues, several of whom were at
the scene the day of the killing.
"For the people in Whitesburg, it was the first time that Hugh
O'Connor was something besides a symbol," Barret said of the
recent screening at Appalshop. "It showed that he was a
person with a family who cared about him, not just somebody
down here exploiting local people. It gave our community
something to reflect on."
Southeast Community College
Cumberland, Kentucky 40823
Phone: 606-589-2145, ext. 2069