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STRANGER WITH A CAMERA
STRANGER WITH A CAMERA Bookmark and Share

62 minutes, 2000
Producer/Director: Elizabeth Barret, Executive Producer: Dee Davis
ABOUT THE FILM
CRITICAL COMMENT
"A well-paced and true-to-life parable, exploring a difficult subject for those of us, artists and filmmakers, who are drawn to social justice work in communities quite often not our own."
Suzanne Lacy, California College of Arts and Crafts
"A thoughtful and disturbing documentary . . . especially relevant today with the blurring of entertainment and news. Barret has composed her investigation as a haunting narrative, but without losing sight of reportorial fairness."
Julie Salamon, New York Times
"Stranger with a Camera is a powerful case study of the moral and political dilemmas that confront filmmakers who wish to expose the ills of our society."
Jay Ruby, Professor of Anthropology, Temple University
"The ethical dilemmas of documentary filmmaking have never been presented with such dramatic bluntness as in Stranger with a Camera. As a teacher I will find it tremendously helpful in persuading students to face the consequences of their actions."
George C. Stoney, Professor of Documentary Film, NYU Tisch School of the Arts
"A personal and poetic interrogation of the very genre of documentary. This tragic event raises troubling questions about responsibility, exploitation, and what it means to take pictures. Stranger With a Camera ponders these questions with a poignancy that does not flinch from an honest, fair-minded, and ultimately self-reflexive point of view. A film immersed in Appalachian place and culture, it is also a far-reaching study about images and power relations."
Ruth Bradley, Director Athens Center for Film and Video

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ALA Booklist Editor's Choice Award for best video of 2000 including the prestigious "Top of the List" award.

DISCONTINUED at California Newsreel. To order visit The Appalshop Store

'What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses,' asks Appalachian filmmaker Elizabeth Barret at the beginning of her emotionally powerful and theoretically challenging new film Stranger With a Camera. She searches for an answer in what has become an iconic incident in the politics of representation and ethnographic filmmaking. On September 24, 1968, a Lecher County, Kentucky landowner, Hobart Ison, shot and killed National Film Board of Canada director Hugh O?Connor for filming a poor family on his land. Local filmmaker Barret uses uniquely this incident to raise troubling ethical questions about identity, balance and media exploitation which no journalist, filmmaker, indeed, anyone who watches documentary film can afford to ignore.

Poverty was not new to Eastern Kentucky in 1968; absentee mine ownership, mechanization, unemployment, strip mining, decaying company towns had left more than half the population living below the poverty line. But it was the politically charged atmosphere of America in the 1960s that transformed these creeks and hollows into symbols of persistent poverty, a standing rebuke to the American Dream. Barret traces how a courageous expose by a local lawyer, Harry Caudill, generated front page articles in the New York Times, a BBC documentary and Charles Kuralt's classic documentary, Christmas in Appalachia. Social activists eagerly appropriated these striking images, notably white and rural, not black and urban, to win support for Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

Barret explores even-handedly why her two protagonists reacted so differently to Appalachia's sudden, unsolicited nationwide media visibility. Hugh O'Connor, a promising young director for the highly respected National Film Board of Canada, followed its founder, legendary documentarian John Greirson's exhortation that cinema can be a pulpit for social change. O'Connor's murderer, Hobart Ison, a respected if eccentric landowner who rented run-down cabins to coal miners, experienced the outside exposes of poverty as attacks on the very roots of his identity. Feeling powerless to rebut what he saw as negative media stereotypes of his community, he justified the murder as a kind of semiotic self defense: 'I had to do it. What would he have done to me, picture-wise and all?'

Many locals agreed with Ison that the issue wasn't poverty but the right of outsiders to holdup another people's culture. Ultimately Ison served only a year in jail for his crime. In the 60s Ison?s argument about 'outside agitators' was already familiar in the South from White Citizens Councils attacks on the Civil Rights Movement. Today it resonates strangely with certain strands of post-modern cultural criticism. The publisher of a local newspaper, however, argues that cultures blind at the same time they illuminate; self-representation is no protection against self-delusion.

Elizabeth Barret presents a third point of view as a community based filmmaker trained at Appalshop, an innovative center set up to allow Appalachians to represent themselves in the media. She revisits the tragedy 30 years later to understand her own community's response to this landmark event. It becomes clear that no one film can ever fully represent a community, the class, race and gender differences which divide it, the dynamism which is constantly transforming it. In the end, Barret comes to the conclusion that a filmmaker's responsibility is to be as true to the complexities of a situation as she can. By this demanding criterion, Stranger With A Camera is itself exemplary.

Read a review of this film from Cineaste magazine by California Newsreel director Larry Daressa.

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