We live in complex times, subject to many pressures. Between the constant attachment to our electronic devices, to the perennial flow of stressful news stories, we often long for a break from our modern world. This is where the allure of rural life comes in: the idea that we could just escape to the country and let go of the pressures of contemporary living for a while is a tempting one. Our impression of this ostensibly simpler way of life, filled with practical and steadfast characters, is fed by media representations of pastoral beauty, making it seem as though a care-free existence lies just beyond the city border.
While TV shows and movies depicting city life advertise the aspirational aspects of the material world, our stories set out in the sticks generally laud the peaceful pleasures that can be obtained by living off the land. Film characters in rural settings are often depicted as down-to-earth, no-nonsense people who harbor wisdom and elicit respect. That said, there are also plenty of examples in which country dwellers are also depicted as simple yokels, less sophisticated than their city counterparts.
But how accurate are these pop-culture depictions of the rural lifestyle? Alongside the more fantastical fictionalized presentations of country life, we also have access to documentaries designed to introduce us to the sometimes difficult reality of rustic existence. Here are six examples of movies that show us agricultural fictions, and the documentaries that shine a little more light on the truth.
Horror in the Hills
When it comes to movies about rural life, the denizens of the backwoods have often received something of a raw deal when it comes to fictional depictions of their lifestyles. The persistent image of the “hillbilly” is a largely negative stereotype, exhibiting uncouth behavior and a lack of intelligence. This distasteful mythology has given rise to a swathe of horror movies in which the mountain-dweller is the villain — sometimes they are portrayed as monstrous, even psychopathic.
Deliverance (1972) remains one of the more prominent examples of this negative depiction of the lives of hillfolk. Four tourists set out on a canoe tour of the northern Georgia wilderness, and are met by locals who are immediately shown as aggressive toward city folk. The tourists don’t exactly help the situation by displaying condescension toward their country hosts. What follows is a horrific tale in which the rural residents set about activities which include kidnapping, murder, and dueling banjos.
The documentary, Hillbilly (2018), seeks to lay to rest some of the more harmful stereotypes of marginalized rural residents. While the film shows that many of its Appalachian subjects embrace the “hillbilly” moniker, there remains a lot of resentment surrounding the mainstream media’s negative portrayals of their lifestyle. Profiles of artists, actors, LGBT+ community members, poets, and feminists serve to present a more culturally varied presentation of hillbilly life.
An aspect that crops up frequently in media set in rural landscapes is the self-sufficient approach to country living — like building houses from scratch and tending to their own plumbing. Characters in movies are often shown to be rising before dawn to tend to their livestock or harvest their crops — hardy folks who can live off the grid and have no use for supermarkets. The community that has often been considered the poster child for self-sufficient rural life is the Amish — though the admirable traits of simple living are frequently tempered by stereotypes of isolation and suspicion of outsiders.
Witness (1985), sees Harrison Ford as a detective forced to integrate himself into an Amish community during his investigation of a murder. At first, the close-knit residents are suspicious of Ford’s character as an outsider but start to warm to him as they start to see that he is skilled at hands-on activities such as carpentry, and he gains the elders’ respect after participating in a barn raising. It doubtlessly helped with movie realism that Ford spent his pre-fame years as a carpenter — so, no need for any woodwork stunt doubles! Following the movie’s climactic depiction of non-violent triumph through community togetherness, the detective leaves the community having been accepted as one of their own.
Amish: A Secret Life (2012), gives viewers the impression that they are being allowed a peek into a secretive world, not usually accessible to strangers; it is made clear that photography is not permitted under the strict rules of Amish life, and that the subjects - David and Miriam Lapp - are engaging in risky behavior by allowing a documentary crew into their community. The film largely serves to reinforce the stereotypes; the children are extremely polite and hardworking, there’s some barn raising and multiple examples of out-dated views on gender roles. While it raises questions about how relevant this lifestyle is in the 21st century, the overarching message seems to be that these rural dwellers have created a bubble of happiness in their isolation.
Many movies that have taken rural America as its host landscape have been set in and around the depression era, showing hardworking folk struggling to make ends meet in the dust bowl. But on-screen representations of the contemporary economic issues affecting country dwellers are few and far between and don’t tend to reflect the struggles rural social workers witness. We see rolling tracts of beautiful rural vistas, but not so much the challenges families face to maintain their rural homes.
City Slickers (1991) is a comedy that shows the titular city-dwelling characters shirking their metropolitan lifestyles to connect deeply with a simpler way of life. However, aside from the horseback hijinks, we are presented with the idea that cattle ranchers can supplement their agricultural income by charging tourists huge amounts of money to act as free labor in a drive across New Mexico. We don’t get the impression that the owners have had to utilize the loan and grant programs designed to assist real-life rural inhabitants. The movie’s climax features Billy Crystal’s character being confronted by the reality that the cattle are being driven to be slaughtered for food and circumvents the ethical lesson by taking a calf home as a pet.
Farmsteaders (2018) shows life among cows is not quite so fun-filled and plagued by uncertainty and economic hardships. Filmed over 5 years, the documentary follows the Nolan family and reveals the struggles they face to operate a dairy farm in rural Ohio. The film digs deep into the financial pressures faced by small rural business owners, the role animal welfare and environmental issues play in their country life, and how damaging the loss of major customers can be on both the business and the family behind it.
We are savvy enough to accept that there is usually a difference between the rural lifestyles that are depicted on our screens and the real-life equivalents. However, we are often not well educated on the social issues and economic hardships that can deeply affect the communities who live their lives away from our bustling cityscapes. While rural settings can make for interesting dramatic possibilities, it is equally important to shed light on the human aspects of these settings.
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