As a child, Andrew Droz Palermo remembers passing the homes on his way to visit his grandparents in Rich Hill, Mo. Sheets of plastic stood in for windowpanes. Blue tarps stretched over collapsed roofs. Garbage piles littered the front yards.
“I’d see a little light on inside and know that it was occupied and wonder how that was even possible,” Droz Palermo says. He wondered about the people who lived within those walls. Now, as an adult, he knows some of them well.
Droz Palermo and his cousin, Tracy Droz Tragos, teamed up to film a documentary about three boys and their families struggling to make it in Rich Hill, located about 70 miles south of Kansas City. The setting was a personal choice for the pair, as Rich Hill was the hometown of Droz Palermo’s mother and Tragos’ father.
Last month, the cousins’ finished documentary, “Rich Hill,” won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It is the highest honor the festival bestows upon American documentaries, setting the winner apart as “the best from the independent film community this year,” according to the award description.
The film will be screened at the True/False Film Fest, where the co-directors plan to answer audience members’ questions after the showings. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Droz Palermo, who was born in Columbia and raised in Jefferson City, and Tragos, who lived in Columbia for a few years as a child before moving to California’s Bay Area.
The cousins, who both live in California now, stayed at their uncle’s house in Rich Hill while filming. The rural town has an area of less than 1.5 square miles and a population of about 1,396 as of the 2010 census. That year, nearly half of the town’s households made less than $25,000 per year, and 27 percent of residents lived below the poverty line. The filmmakers describe Rich Hill as a “mined-out coal town” many abandoned after World War II.
But it was home to the documentary’s three subjects, teenagers Andrew, Appachey and Harley.
Andrew’s family moves from town to town in search of employment, and just when the 14-year-old gets settled in, his family has to pick up and leave again. They keep landing in Rich Hill, where Andrew’s family stays with relatives in a crowded home. Droz Palermo calls Andrew “a little adult” because of his wisdom beyond his years.
Appachey is a creative 13-year-old who projects a tough-guy image but seeks connection with others. His behavior can be destructive; he has a desire “to make and break things,” Droz Palermo says in his director’s statement. Although Appachey is smart, he has to repeat sixth grade. His troubles grow when he ends up in juvenile court.
Harley’s mother is in prison, so he lives with his beloved grandmother. The 15-year-old cuts school to be at home with her and fears being separated. But though he’s facing some serious problems, “Harley often makes it difficult to hold the camera still because he makes us laugh,” Droz Palermo’s statement reads.
In spite of the challenges they’re up against, all three boys have hopes for better lives.
The filmmakers were quickly drawn to the teens, but their new relationships deepened when the boys’ families welcomed the duo into their homes.
“They were really grateful and wanted their stories told, and were surprised that we were interested,” Tragos says. The families didn’t shy away from showing their struggles on camera.
The remarkable access the cousins gained was due, in part, to their ties to Rich Hill. “Because our grandmother was a third-grade schoolteacher and our grandfather was a mail carrier, they got to know a lot of people in town,” Tragos says. Glenn and Dorothy Droz lived in a modest, one-story brick house, but it had a chandelier and a beautiful garden, and Dorothy’s occupation made them “almost upper-class in Rich Hill,” Droz Palermo says. Many townspeople remember the Drozes, and some of the filmmakers’ other family members still live in Rich Hill as well. Those connections meant people viewed the directors less as outsiders.
The cousins also credit each other for the closeness they achieved with their subjects. Although they rarely conducted interviews, Droz Palermo admires his co-director for her ability to engage the boys and their families. “She just really gets to the bottom or the essence of a person in a nice way,” he says.
Tragos points to her cousin’s cinematography, which has been widely praised by critics. “Andrew is an amazing cinematographer,” she says. “It was a pleasure to be able to work with him and have this beautiful imagery. There’s a way that he listens with the camera that is extraordinary and, I think, very rare.”
The directors believe that in the stories of Andrew, Appachey and Harley, viewers will recognize underprivileged rural America as a whole. Their wish is for audiences to consider how many Rich Hills there are — impoverished rural towns, short on resources and largely forgotten — and feel moved to look for ways of helping.
And they want to convey a sense of hope. An important part of the film focuses on the highlight of the year in Rich Hill: the town’s Fourth of July celebration, complete with a parade and fireworks. Droz Palermo calls the people’s revelry “transcendent.”
After the holiday, though, “they’re left with nothing,” he says. “The fireworks are gone, and reality sets in, and they’re back to boiling hot water on an iron or something because the gas has been shut off. But I think underneath it all, there’s still resilience.”