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How a Film-maker From Boston Is Challenging Appalachian Stereotypes Through Documentaries

Sally Rubin does not consider herself to be Appalachian, however, she does have Appalachian roots. Her mother hails from the mountains of East Tennessee, and the stereotypes and misconceptions believed by those outside of the mountainous region sparked her interest to create “hillbilly,” a documentary film refuting those stereotypes, alongside Ashley York, a Kentucky-born media maker and film producer. The documentary’s companion piece, “Her Appalachia” focuses on the women of the rural region.

Rubin is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at Chapman University. She attended Tufts University to major in women’s studies and French. She received her master’s degree at Stanford University in documentary film.

Following a documentary workshop at the Media Innovation Center, Rubin sat down with Her Campus at WVU to discuss her motives, inspirations and pieces of advice for storytellers.


HC: How do you avoid parachute journalism?

SR: Having spent about two decades making films in Appalachia, I no longer feel like a parachute journalist here. I think if you spend more than a day or a month and you spend years and film again and again with the same people, it just helps to tell a story that is more authentic and is more thoughtful. So for me, I think what helps prevent parachute journalism (because I do live away from here and I am an outsider) is time – spending time here and really, really listening to people and building up a set of work that I feel proud of, that people can look at and see. They know what I’m like and what my angle is.

HC: What is your favorite part about the industry you work in?

SR: That’s a good question. I really love the other documentary filmmakers that I meet. Documentary filmmakers tend to be so curious about people so much wanting to get into other people’s worlds and simultaneously create them. They do tend to have a social justice mission and I enjoy meeting people like that. It tends to be an industry that’s friendly to women – friendlier than some industries. Documentary technology’s always changing; the stories are countless. It just feels like a field that has a lot of endless possibilities.

HC: Why do you think the industry is friendlier to women?

SR: I think in part because there’s less money in it, it attracts less men, so there are more women in the field. Which means it’s a field where there are more women in positions of power, so it’s inherently going to be friendlier to women. A field that’s about getting into other people worlds doesn’t lend itself so much of the macho ego that you would see in Hollywood or more fiction-based filmmaking fields.

HC: Do you think living in LA has given you an insider perspective?

SR: I do, although not so much from living in LA. I would say my insider perspective comes from teaching at the film school. Where I teach, I work with 40 full-time faculty, many of whom used to be in the industry in Hollywood, and some of whom are still involved. I’d say there I get my insider look.

HC: What do you hope to accomplish by producing films?

SR: It really depends on the film. Each film has different objectives set out for it and in the case of hillbilly and actually all my films are usually want to raise awareness of a certain issue and have people have a new understanding of somebody else’s experience and usually in an increased sensitivity in the way that we talk and act towards other social groups.

HC: Why is it important/beneficial to tell these types of impactful stories?

SR: If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. There’s so much wrong in this world, and if I’m not helping to make things better and solve an issue that feels like an injustice, then I am part of the problem. I don’t want to be that way for me and for my daughter; I want to be a role model for somebody who believes that she can make a difference in the world.

HC: As a storyteller, are you ever able to look back on a project and be completely finished with it?

SR: Yes, because eventually the film is due or the money runs out. Once you’ve sound mixed and color corrected it, that s*** is done. I’m not one of those filmmakers who’s going to keep going back in, being a perfectionist, and opening it back up. I don’t believe there is perfect. Every movie can be different. You just have to finish it and move on at a certain point.

HC: As an assistant professor, what is one thing you strive to teach your students?

SR: I strive to teach them so much. I definitely strive to teach them to just keep doing your craft. Over the years, I’ve seen so many documentary filmmakers sort of fall off from their career when they couldn’t make a living doing it, or something else came up, and a lot of the documentary film-makers become the best film-makers. They’re just the ones who stick with it over a period of five, 10, 15, 20, 30 years. I encourage that in my students. Stick with what you’re doing, finish your films, no matter how bad you think it is. Finish it so you can say you finished a project. It’s so important to do that.

HC: What advice would you give to students who are interested in telling an important story?

SR: I would say do your research. If you do your research, then you become confident. If you’re confident, you are more likely to dive into a story. Where people get stuck in part is when they don’t do their research and feel like they aren’t qualified to tell a story, so they don’t do it. I think getting into it requires research in many cases.

HC: Do you ever experience a time where you feel burned out or want to stop working on a project?

SR: I don’t ever want to quit a project. I do go through phases where I have more or less motivation, and that’s why I think it’s good to have a co-director. A co-director will keep you going, and they can pick up the slack when you need a break, and vice versa. I tend to feel that once I’m in a project, I have to finish it. I can’t jump to another unless this thing’s done. I think that this work ethic is important because it’s just too hard otherwise.

HC: Any more advice you would like to give to aspiring women storytellers?

SR: Just do it. A lot of what makes men sometimes more successful in the classroom and beyond is that they just have more gumption, because of how they’ve been socialized – they should just do it. Women don’t get that kind of encouragement. If you just keep doing something and work hard at it, even if you’re not gifted, eventually you will succeed. As women, we tend to be too passive. We take the backseat too often. You just have to jump in and be an active participant in your own career and in your own life.

Rachel is a senior at WVU majoring in Public Relations with minors in Appalachian studies, history and political science. In addition to writing for Her Campus, she is also a publicity intern for Arts and Entertainment and a news intern for Univerisity Relations. She is from Princeton, West Virginia and loves her state and its beautiful mountains. She is passionate about many things including dogs, musicals and the Mountaineers.
Juliet is a senior at West Virginia University and is majoring in Public Relations with a minor in political science. She is interested in using her knowledge as a public relations student to work in government or politics.
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