Another View from the Hills
Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
By Steven Tweddell
She’s only 11, and she has to stay home nearly every weekend, sometimes entire weeks, with only two of her sisters for company and guidance- one is three years older, the other, four years younger – while her father travels miles to Lexington to visit his ailing wife. And the three of them have to run the farm. Strip tobacco, work in the fields, all of it. Eleven years old. Then she contracts tuberculosis when she’s 12 and has to be sent away to join her mother at the sanatorium.
This is just one of the hard luck stories from Patrick Donohew’s new film, Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait.
Donohew started with the idea of making his grandfather’s story a film, but as he conducted the long phone interviews with his aunts and mother, he discovered that the sisters’ stories were the most compelling. They could tell their own histories much more easily, and in doing so, tell their father’s story as well. Thus, Seven Sisters was born.
Even though Donohew may have been mistaken about the original direction of his film, he clearly knew that he wanted to make a film about Kentucky, especially eastern Kentucky. And since the media usually exploits the stereotypes of poverty and laziness in the Appalachian region, he was firm about making a different kind of film: “I wanted to dispel myths by showing that some of the strongest most caring people are from that area. I felt that the image needed to be corrected.”
He felt Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow was typical of films about the area that do more harm than good. “When Kennedy’s film came out,” he says, “I was really upset, but I also thought it was the perfect time for the film I was making.”
Donohew’s film centers around seven sisters growing up in the mountains near West Liberty, Kentucky, enduring the hardships of that life, and coming of age as they each leave home and build their own lives apart from the family, mostly in Lexington.
“I call it ordinary heroism,” he says of their stories, “things folks have to go through to live their life – acts of sacrifice, courage, and generosity.” He explains that it’s different from other documentaries because it does deal with normal people and their lives instead of films that tend to focus on a cataclysmic event, or a really strange person who is painted as a human being.
Although the women in Seven Sisters may be viewed as ordinary, they tell extraordinary stories, and Donohew forms the narrative using only the words of sisters, each presenting their own take of the events that shaped their lives.
“I felt from the beginning that there should be no narrator. The sisters’ voices were so strong that if another outside voice was added, I felt like it would distract the viewer.” With only the sisters speaking, he had to worry about transitions, wondering if he could even pull it off. He conducted many pre-interviews so that he would be able to go into the real interviews with very specific questions.
The viewer gets to know each woman on a first-name basis -Scarlette, Cora, Ethel, Dorothy, Glenna, Charlotte, and Carole-and their comments sometimes seem directed straight to the viewer, as a conversation. The filmmaker is completely unobtrusive.
Perhaps it is Donohew’s relationship with the women that put them at ease on camera. One of the sisters, Ethel, is his mother. But none of them seem to have any problem letting him in on some of their most painful moments.
He adds, “Part of being honest… sometimes you say things that are awkward and can hurt.” And by putting it on camera, “this brings the viewer into challenges of how a family grows and gains strength.”
Even after going through the countless hours of preparation and work to crystalize ideas for the interviews, Donohew is quick to shift any credit, saying, “The credit goes to the sisters. They were all so very forthcoming and open with me.” And that translates to the film, creating a view of eastern Kentucky – and the state, in general – that is more heroic than what we’re used to.
KET will air Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait on Wednesday August 16 at 8 PM.
Donohew lives in San Francisco, but he was born and raised in Lexington, graduating from Lafayette High School in 1984 and from Transylvania University in 1988. Though he has been gone for several years, he says, “my heart is in Kentucky, and the projects that I want to spend the most time with deal with issues in Kentucky.”
He’s now working on scripts for future documentaries as well as feature film ideas, many of which will be set in Kentucky because as he says, “Kentucky will always be home to me.”