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Documentary project aims to capture some of region’s history, culture before it’s gone

By Bill Lynch, Staff writer
Courtesy photo
Financial advisor-turned-documentary filmmaker Shane Simmons interviews Thelma Blankenship of Princeton for “The Appalachian Project.”

Shane Simmons said he and Jason Barton had no idea what they were getting into when they started "The Appalachian Project," an ongoing documentary that "is committed to promoting and preserving the heritage and culture of the Southern Appalachians."

They were just a couple of guys from Southwestern Virginia on a road trip to New Orleans, who over the course of the drive thought it might be cool to explore their own backyard. They wanted to talk to people, learn something of their history and culture and maybe find out things that were in danger of being lost.

"It was basically going to be two guys with a camcorder," Simmons said.

But before they even got started, they put together a Facebook page and announced their intentions to the world.

The Internet was listening.

Simmons, a 43-year-old from Richlands, Virginia, said, "We started off in February with a Facebook page. Our goal was to maybe have a thousand or two thousand likes by the end of the year."

They had 5,000 in just a few months and are currently just shy of 7,000. People from all over region contacted them with ideas, tips and stories they wanted to share.

"We had no idea there was such a demand for what we're trying to do," Simmons said. 

They decided they needed to step up their game. They bought better equipment and got some people to advise them on how to use it.

"How much experience did we have?" he asked. "Zero. None. We're both bankers."

But Simmons said they had a real passion for the concept, and they learned as they went. They learned more about lighting, framing a shot and even how to conduct a video interview better.

From the beginning, Simmons said they wanted to focus on conversations with senior citizens.

"We thought 80 years old plus," he said. "Because they're disappearing every day."

The older generations, they figured, would be more connected with the traditions of Appalachian culture, some of which Simmons and Barton thought were fading.

They've met some interesting people, including 93-year-old Rose Marie Ward from Logan, who taught them about drying beans into leather britches.

"I had no idea," Simmons said and laughed.

Just getting out and talking to rural folk altered some of their perceptions about Appalachians. 

Simmons said they expected the senior citizens they spoke with to tell them that the greatest thing that had changed during their lifetimes was technology. Instead, they said people had changed.

"Relationships," he said. "They told me people don't get together like they used to. They don't visit homes and that kind of thing. We've lost that closeness."

Because of their travels, Simmons said the scope of what he and Barton would like to do has grown. Appalachia is more than just one piece of the mountains, more than just one group of people who live there.

"The experience of African-Americans in Appalachia is different," he said.

Simmons said it wouldn't do the spirit of the project justice to reduce them to just a small segment of their eventual finished project. So, the project is evolving into more of a series.

"This is really a labor of love for us," he said.

But it's not cheap. The time, the equipment, even the driving around gets expensive.

"People always ask us if we're for profit or non-profit." He laughed. "We're for a loss."

Simmons still works as a financial advisor for a bank in Johnston City, Tennessee. He fits in his part of the project during his spare time.

"But Jason is at it full-time right now," Simmons said. "He's probably out on the top of some mountain right now."

The eventual hope is that they might turn some kind of profit. A few media outlets have expressed some interest in what the pair are doing, and Simmons said the two of them are working on a companion book to go with the documentary.

Money would be nice, but really, it's more about learning and sharing what they can find about their own culture. Not everybody will get what the people of this region are really about.

"You hear about poverty and lack of education," Simmons said. "But most of the people we talked to, when they look back on their lives, they've been happy. These people could have moved away or else they did and they came back. They chose that simpler life."

It's something Simmons said he and Barton can appreciate. They're both educated, have traveled and could leave the region.

"But we chose to live here, too," he said.

Simmons and Barton have posted some of their interviews to their Facebook page (facebook.com/AppalachianProject). Simmons thought the first documentary should be completed over the winter at the latest.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter.


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