Survival and Resistance: Appalshop’s First 40 Years

Rend Smith

AppalshopFour decades ago, in a Whitesburg, Kentucky storefront that once held a “tire supermarket,” Herb E. Smith, a seventeen-year-old member of the Appalachian Film Workshop—Appalshop, for short—learned to work the 16-millimeter Arriflex-S camera.

The Arri weighed twenty pounds and had a battery belt. Though it would be considered cumbersome by modern standards, in 1971 the camera offered its wielder something no other camera did: mobility. Here was a chance to walk the streets of a small coal town and ask people what they thought of the Vietnam War; here was the freedom to trek up steep, lush inclines of Kentucky wilderness to roll footage on an expert dulcimer player.

When it came time to edit the camera’s footage, things were a little less upscale. Smith and other young filmmakers cut the 16mm film on a hand-cranked editing suite they called the squawk box.

Back then, Appalshop was more of a hangout, Smith remembers. The filmmakers that made up its core, all seventeen-to-twenty years old, spent a good deal of time playing cards, smoking, acting rowdy, and listening to the “White Album” or Three Dog Night. But they also got a lot of work done, editing into the small hours. They were dedicated to making films about their culture, he recollects, something they viewed as a matter of survival and resistance.

“By connecting to the traditional culture of the Appalachian region,” explains Smith in an email, “we were opting out of the military-industrial machine that was bombing peasants in Southeast Asia.”

These days, with twenty-six staff members, Appalshop has swapped out its storefront for a sprawling media arts center. Replete with a series of sober offices, the place feels nothing like a hangout. The shared laser printers in the hallway pump out a continuing stream of grant proposals, while two front desk receptionists busily field and direct phone calls. The Arri and squawk box have been shelved for digital cameras and computers.

Though Smith says he misses the “craft” involved in using the old equipment, the 56-year-old has modernized. He’s currently shooting a project about community organizers on DVCam and editing it on his Mac. Appalshop

But distribution has changed too, so media artist Nick Szuberla, a spry 35-year-old transplant from the Midwest who wears a knit cap indoors, keeps hounding Smith about viral videos, popular pieces of online media that get passed from web user to web user. Szuberla brings up the concept so often Smith recently put some video he shot of Appalachian community activist Cecil Roberts (speaking at an Obama rally) online, where it garnered a healthy amount of hits. “Appalshop has always been about communication,” says Szuberla, “so we always have to be willing to reexamine the way we’re connecting with our audience.”

Smith doesn’t disagree. He says he’s trying to learn about the emerging platforms, but usually concentrates more on the shooting and editing. “Still, I’m glad to see Nick and others figure out the YouTube-type work,” he says. 

However, the “YouTube-type work” being done by Appalshop “newcomers” (Szuberla has been there for a decade, but at Appalshop that’s a drop in the bucket compared to some), goes way beyond uploading clips onto a popular video site. A co-founder of Thousand Kites, a massive multimedia arts endeavor to reform the U.S. prison system, Szuberla is dipping into everything from social media to email blasts to computerized call centers.

The patio just off the shared workplace kitchen in the Appalshop building looks out onto green ruffles of mountain and smells of cigarettes, fresh coffee, and—occasionally—Krispy Kreme donuts. Since arriving at Appalshop, Szuberla has tried to stay away from ciggys and donuts, but doesn’t mind slamming down the coffee, a beverage he jokingly calls “the brown water,” to keep his energy up.

In the ’90s, Szuberla and fellow artist Amelia Kirby hosted a hip-hop show on WMMT, Appalshop’s community radio station. The show grew popular among the mostly African-American inmate populations of Wallens Ridge and Red Onion, two nearby mountain-region “supermaxes,” super-maximum security prisons, staffed by white locals. Soon the DJs were receiving letter after letter from distressed prisoners who accused their guards of daily human rights violations, everything from spouting racist hate speech to doling out torture.  

Eventually the duo shot a doc about Wallens Ridge (Up the Ridge, 2004) and the suspicious deaths of two prisoners there. Szuberla and Kirby toured the country with the film. The issue seemed to strike a chord with audiences. Two regularly exploited groups—poor, rural, Appalachians and poor, inner-city African Americans—were being pitted against each other in a game set up by prison profiteers. Sometimes audience members cried, sometimes they argued, but their reactions were always strong. “They wanted to know more,” says Szuberla.

The documentary makers began plugging the contacts they gathered on the road into a database. They envisioned building a national community around prison issues, one that would cut across boundaries, include prisoners, guards, prisoners’ families, activists, students, and church members. Everyone.

From there, Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project addressing the prison system, gradually emerged. The WMMT radio show Kirby and Szuberla started became a vehicle through which prisoners’ family members, marooned in far away cities, could call in and send messages of hope to inmates. Email blasts and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace came in particularly handy. Kites needed to communicate with callers; interested parties could tune into the radio broadcasts over the web; and activists could arrange to have the show mirrored on local stations.

Soon other artists got involved. Roadside Theater, Appalshop’s longtime theater troupe, got into the action by delving into the personal stories Thousand Kites had collected via radio shows, interviews, and prisoner letters. Roadside structured these stories into a play, posted the script online, and began encouraging people to perform it as a way of opening up a discussion around the criminal justice system in their area. It worked. There have been multiple performances across the country since the script’s release.

Like all other aspects of Thousand Kites, the play is being plugged into something Szuberla has dubbed a “digital story feedback loop.” In this loop, he explains, “Everything connects. The audience is both the producer and the participant.” Asked to clarify, he describes the intriguingly interrelated system: At the end of the performance of a Kites play, which is made up of criminal justice stories told by ordinary people, audience members are asked to call a toll-free number and tell their own. An answering machine records these narratives. The stories are then converted into digital audio downloads which are posted on the Kites website. Later, this audio is merged into an online radio broadcast, which is repackaged for traditional radio and broadcast nationally. (Here the “loop” in digital-story-feedback-loop kicks in.) The radio stories are then fused into a new version of the Kites play, and the process begins again.

A visit to the Kites site,, reveals a sophisticated platform for a continually expanding project—everything from audio of prison poetry and video of live performances to a continuing rush of blog posts and events listings. The site’s “about” page points to the need to “break down the silence surrounding the U.S. criminal justice system through storytelling and listening” as a way to “find effective solutions to over-incarceration in communities,” such as advocacy campaigns and organizing.

Szuberla is excited about everything this work entails. “We’ve developed a campaign model,” he says, “and it starts with grounding the work here in Appalachia, asking ourselves what our story is and proceeding from there. We create the production (video, radio, film, theater) at the same time we focus on the process of how this work will create movements and strategies for positive social change.” In 2007, Kites held a national summit of grassroots and policy stakeholders to develop outreach goals and communication objectives, which were then infused into Kites' work to reach a broad national audience. Szuberla adds, “Through partnerships, we gain policy objectives, which we then translate into our communication work, taking our projects and content into a new realm.”

Though doing this kind of national alliance building isn’t part of Appalshop’s typical work, Szuberla believes it should be. “We can’t go it alone in rural America,” he says. “The environmental, economic, and social forces at work in our community are global, and our work has to be also.”

As an example of Appalachian issues gone global, Szuberla points to a time when, during the recent presidential election, the world’s media focused on Appalachia as a touchstone for racist cultural attitudes. Some of the youth involved with Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute chose to speak to the issue by putting together an audio commentary. “The youth producers got on the air and said that things were not as simplistic as they seemed, that there was a diversity of experiences in the area,” Szuberla recalls. The teenagers FTPed the audio over to National Public Radio, which carried the piece. “Appalshop is staying true to its values,” says Szuberla, “but we also see the possibilities to expand the effect and impact of our work.”

“The majority of the funding for our project,” he reveals, “is connected to strategic use, policy work, and outreach activities. Looking at the documentary side of Thousand Kites, we have raised more funds around how we would use the film than we did for actual production costs. This is the reality of the funding environment for media work, and it bodes well for those looking to do social justice work grounded in issues and connected to movements.”

Herb Smith sees in Thousand Kites and similar, newer Appalshop projects “both a clear continuity and major changes.” He says, “The founding idea of allowing a broad range of people to get their hands on expensive media equipment is the same. We’ve been pretty consistent over the forty years in that work.”

He adds, “We are still building Appalshop. As individuals, we draw on the resources of the organization, and we build those resources. Everyone is expected to do both, and the people who come here—and stay—learn how to be good at both.”

Though Szuberla definitely sees himself as part of a changing Appalshop, he’s quick to indicate that Thousand Kites isn’t the only Appalshop project breaking new ground.

“If you walked around our building, you would find youth producers working on a commentary for NPR with a partner in Oakland, a screening by a visiting filmmaker from Jakarta as part of a three-year exchange between Appalshop and Indonesia, and a radio project that is training local residents to produce their own content, along with a lot of data entry around contacts and folks we want to communicate with.”

“Appalshop is a very different organization,” Herb Smith says, “but the organizing concepts are the same. The need to have a cadre of people who are using these tools to deal with the problems that our communities face, and to celebrate life in these mountains, that need is the same today as it was forty years ago.”  

REND SMITH is freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. He has written for Washington City Paper, Dayton City Paper, The Hill Rag, AlterNet, and many other publications.

©2008 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.