December 18, 2014

By Fred Koenig

Let’s be clear right off the bat: the documentary Rich Hill is not about the town, Rich Hill, Mo. The town of Rich Hill is a small town located south of Kansas City. It is much like any small town in the Midwest. It can be a lovely, picturesque community. I spoke to Rev. Mark Kailbourn, pastor of our United Methodist Church there, and he shared that many of the children that grow up there go on to college, earn graduate degrees in education, and work their way back to Rich Hill to teach at the school because they love the community. 
    
The documentary Rich Hill is set in Rich Hill, Mo., but the movie is not about the town. It is a very personal, intimate look at the lives of three young adolescents who are live in poverty. They are the kids you’ve encountered as a parent, teacher or school volunteer. They are kids with poor attendance and behavior problems. In Rich Hill, you spend time in their homes – you see the struggles, and you come to understand the back story behind the bad attitude. 
    
In early March in Columbia there is a film festival called True/False, in which documentaries play at multiple venues, morning until evening. People come from all over the country. You can buy passes to attend as many as you can handle. There are around 40 documentaries shown, and if you run from one to the next, you can make it to about 17 of them over the course of the three-day festival. The Family Life Center of Missouri United Methodist Church is transformed into a movie theater for the weekend so that it may serve as a venue. 
    
The documentaries can make you uncomfortable, particularly those focused on people in poverty. It’s the same discomfort I’ve felt as a journalist when I’ve photographed and interviewed people in poverty. I always question whether I’m exploiting their situation just to get a “good” story. 
    
So the easy answer is to just focus on the bright and pretty – the positive stories of success. But that course leaves important stories of struggle untold. 
    
So as you watch the documentaries at the True/False festival, locked in your own dilemma of whether you are learning about a situation, or just being entertained by the drama in the story of someone else’s dilemmas, things are about to get worse. When the lights come up at the end of the movie, the film makers are standing there on stage, usually with the subjects of the documentary you’ve just watched, and they are available for questions from the audience. This was the case with Rich Hill when it showed in Columbia last spring. All three boys featured in the film, and their parents, were present. It was undeniable that these were real people, not just a story.
     
I encourage you to watch Rich Hill, but for goodness sake don’t pass any judgment on the community of Rich Hill by the movie. The stories told should be considered representative examples of the stories of the lives of youth in poverty who are living in the communities of every one of our 850 churches in the Missouri Conference. It brings to light the life that most of us have not had to live. 
    
Be forewarned, being a documentary, there is profane language, smoking and adult themes in the movie Rich Hill. It’s a film about children, but it’s not a film for children. Rich Hill can be downloaded online by searching “Rich Hill” at www.amazon.com. For more on the True/False Film Festival, go to www.truefalse.org