Sharing Appalachia Through Our Stories

By Sarah Downer

April 17, 2024

Photos courtesy of the author

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Education, the Lyric Theatre, and VT Engage teamed up to host the community’s second Rural Film Festival on February 29th, 2024. Our team selected 8 short films among an impressive pool of applicants to feature at the festival, including Leatherbritches, an animated short film by Virginia Tech graduate student and filmmaker, Sarah Downer, who took part in the post-viewing panel discussion. In this blog post, Sarah discusses the importance of telling rural stories.

After my film, Leatherbritches, was shown as part of the Rural Film Festival at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg recently, I was honored to literally have a seat at the table among a group of talented rural storytellers. The festival consisted of two hours of incredible stories about life, loss, perseverance, and community ties in rural communities. As these stories were shared, the audience wasn’t shy about cheering, crying, and applauding to show how deeply the stories resonated with them. It got me thinking—why is it so important for us to tell our stories about rural life and Appalachia? 

Over the last year while I was making Leatherbritches, I was reminded over and over again just how much people crave being represented. Seeing yourself or someone like you represented in a familiar, relatable, and positive way is incredibly powerful. When they saw the film, I’ve had people happily ask me if their own relatives—who usually looked nothing like my 3D characters—had inspired the character design. They saw so much of themselves in the setting and stories I was able to create in the 3D environment. By telling my family’s stories, I was able to affirm other people’s identities as well.

My then-90-year-old grandma provided the narration for the entire film. When I started recording interviews with her, I didn’t have a clear picture of how I would actually use them. I thought I might get some charming clips that I could add to the end credits, or maybe some sound effects for my characters’ expressions. What I found in test showings was that people fell in love with the small clips I played of Grandma talking. They wanted more! The stories she told reminded audiences of their own grandmothers and they were transported back in time.

Appalachia has historically been the punching bag of popular media. When I suggested using bluegrass music in the background, I was immediately met with grimaces and warnings from my advisors that bluegrass gives Deliverance vibes. I don’t blame people for having that point of view because those negative stories are the only context they have for rural Appalachian communities. Honestly, by neglecting to tell our stories, we left a void, and others came in to fill that void with their own versions of Appalachia. We let people like J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis) tell the world who we are because as a community, we hadn’t yet stood up to do it ourselves. It didn’t matter that accounts like Vance’s weren’t authentic; they were the first to fill the void, and first impressions matter. Deliverance and Hillbilly Elegy ate our lunch, so to speak. I didn’t end up using bluegrass in my film, by the way.

If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will, and we might not like how they do it. Like Vance’s book exemplifies, stories don’t necessarily have to be authentic for people to latch on to them. As an animator and storyteller, accurate cultural representation has always been very important to me. This is the difference between Aladdin, which, while a fun story, represents stereotypes but no real culture in particular, and Moana, a rich, cultural story that brought the whole world into the Polynesian culture. When making Moana, Pixar went to the trouble to hire Polynesian consultants, from costume designers to fishermen, and it shows. Essentially, when you tell someone’s story, you are telling them who they are, and you are telling the world how to see them—with or without their consent. When you are repeatedly told that you are a second class citizen, or poor, or destined to be a drug addict, you might start to believe it. 

How can we counteract these existing negative stories and stereotypes? Proving them wrong or arguing doesn’t seem to be the answer, and defensiveness doesn’t seem to win us any friends. Instead, I believe that the way to counter this negativity is to tell our own stories and amplify our community members who are telling our authentic stories. Indeed, we have a responsibility to take up space in a way that creates a sense of pride and belonging for ourselves and our neighbors. This can be through showing up for visual artists like Ceirra Evans, attending events like the Rural Film Festival, and buying books by actual rural Appalachian authors. I’m surprised that not many people around me seem to know that Barbara Kingsolver just wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning book, Demon Copperhead, based in our area and featuring our communities. Kingsolver even mentions our little town of Christiansburg—in a Pulitzer-winning novel! We should take stories like these and shout them from the rooftops. Not only will this support existing storytellers, but it will show future storytellers that there is a space for them and that people want to hear what they have to say.

Our stories matter. Who tells our stories matters. How we allow ourselves to be depicted matters. As I reflect on my experience at the Rural Film Festival and my year creating Leatherbritches, I am reminded of the incredible impact storytelling holds in shaping perceptions and identities. Our rural communities, often misrepresented or overlooked, are brimming with narratives of resilience, love, and heritage. By sharing our stories authentically, we reclaim our narrative from the grip of stereotypes and misrepresentation. Whether it’s through art, literature, or community events, every story told is a reminder to ourselves and to others of who we are. Together, we can rewrite the narrative of Appalachia, ensuring that our stories resonate loudly and proudly for generations to come.

Sarah Downer grew up in Newport, Virginia and currently resides in Christiansburg. She works as a student program coordinator at Virginia Tech and is a graduate student in the Master of Natural Resources program through the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. Her artist statement follows.

I come from a long line of strong Appalachian women who have passed down the traditions and stories of this place for more than five generations. As an artist I feel a strong sense of responsibility to preserve and celebrate this unique culture and history through my work. Using animation and storytelling, I honor my family legacy, challenge negative stereotypes of Appalachians, and document traditions that can instill a sense of pride and belonging for future generations.

My short film explores the traditional Appalachian food preservation method known as leatherbritches, which involves stringing green beans onto a string or wire and hanging them to cure in a dry place for several weeks. Once the beans are dry, they can be stored for months, providing a source of sustenance during the long winter when fresh produce is scarce.

 Stringing and hanging the beans is a communal effort, with multiple generations of family members and neighbors coming together to share in the work of resilience and enjoy the rewards of a bountiful harvest. A sense of communal effort and shared support is a core part of Appalachian culture, as is a familiarity with meditative forms of labor like gardening and stringing the beans. I celebrate these traditions and work to preserve them through my art. Ultimately, my goal is to create a project  that honors the people and rich cultural heritage of Appalachia, and inspires others to appreciate the beauty and significance of this unique region. 

Animation can bridge divides and bring people together across differences where words fail. I invite viewers to gain a greater sense of understanding and appreciation for the nature, community, and cultural richness of the place that I call home.

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