“The Saint of Dry Creek,” a 4-minute animated work about growing up as the gay son of a stoic dairy farmer in rural Washington state, is part of the Rural Film Festival. Image Courtesy of StoryCorps.
“The Saint of Dry Creek," a 4-minute animated feature about growing up as the gay son of a stoic dairy farmer in rural Washington, is among the works to be shown Wednesday in Blacksburg. Courtesy of StoryCorps.

BLACKSBURG — What do a John Prine song about the opioid crisis, a gay kid growing up in Washington state in the 1950s, a Black podcaster and a Kentucky radio station that plays songs for prisoners have in common?

All of them are stories from rural America, and all of them are subjects of short films that will be screened in Blacksburg on Wednesday night.

The Rural Film Festival features 10 documentaries that chronicle modern life in rural communities, ranging in subjects from Appalachian and Native American history to the life of a Muslim woman from Kentucky coal country to stories about old-time seed gatherers and farming traditions. The event is free and the films will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg.

The festival also serves as one of the first public events sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Center for Rural Education, which was created last year to help rural communities and educators combat the inequities, poverty, lack of opportunities and other problems that afflict public schools in their regions. The center aims to look beyond classroom issues and peer deeper into systemic problems that can affect rural communities, which can also include technological, health care and social safety net shortcomings.

Amy Price Azano, founding director for the new Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy of Felicia Spencer | Virginia Tech.  

“We have to look at the entire rural ecosystem,” said Amy Price Azano, the rural education center’s founder and a native of Luray.

“If we only focus on schools, teachers and kids, we will run into the same walls. But if you zoom out and look at health care, infrastructure, displacement, community service boards … then you invite more people to the table.”

That’s part of the reason the center is sponsoring a film festival that doesn’t directly focus on education, but rather showcases broader societal and cultural influences and differences typified in rural places.

The films, which range in length from 4 to 11 minutes, deal with serious topics such as opioid addiction and the wreckage it has wrought on rural areas, but also lighter fare such as “Reverence & Irreverence,” which chronicles the endurance of Appalachian food and farming culture and how dishes of rabbit, ramps and biscuits are considered haute cuisine in some sophisticated foodie circles.

In Virginia, the term “rural” can often be associated with the mountainous coalfields of Appalachia, but Tech’s new center broadens the focus to include rural communities from Midwestern flatlands to Pacific Northwest farm country, as well as communities that are not always predominantly white.

One of the films, “The Hunt,” which was produced by the filmmaking arm of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, details a Sioux bison hunt in the plains of South Dakota and the efforts to connect Native American youth with their families’ traditions.

John Prine. Courtesy Oh Boy Records
John Prine. Courtesy Oh Boy Records.

The music of the late John Prine, the folk troubadour who died of COVID-19 complications in 2020, is featured prominently in a short documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes during the making of the video for his song “Summer’s End.”  The song, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2018, evokes Prine’s familiar themes of melancholy, loss and hope. In the hands of directors Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, who made the Oscar-nominated documentary “Heroin(e),” the accompanying video illustrates Prine’s lyrics with scenes that represent the devastating losses inflicted by the rural drug scourge.

Prine wrote in 2018: “The opioid crisis is tearing American families apart. I love what Elaine and Kerrin have done with my song for this video. I hope a lot of people see it.”

Courtesy WMMT/Appalshop
“Restorative Radio” is a documentary about “Calls from Home,” the radio program for prisoners and their families broadcast by the public radio station operated by Appalshop. Courtesy WMMT/Appalshop.

Music and messages are at the heart of “Restorative Radio,” a documentary about “Calls from Home,” the radio program for prisoners and their families broadcast by WMMT, the public radio station operated by Appalshop, the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based repository of Appalachian art, archives and advocacy.

“Calls from Home” is a program that broadcasts songs and messages to inmates incarcerated in one of the many prisons that populate Appalachia, most of them built as economic development projects meant to offset the decimation of coal mining and manufacturing industries. WMMT itself was nearly destroyed by massive floods in July 2022 that swamped Whitesburg and its Appalshop headquarters, destroying an irreplaceable trove of Appalachian history, music, films, recordings and other archives. The station is currently raising funds to bring DJs back on the air as it broadcasts online at wmmt.org.

Another innovative film is “The Saint of Dry Creek,” a 4-minute animated work taken from StoryCorps, a collection of interviews with regular people that was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and once aired regularly on National Public Radio stations. The animation illustrates Patrick Haggerty’s sweet story about growing up as the gay son of a stoic dairy farmer in rural Washington.

Wednesday’s festival includes shorts about Iman Ali and her story about being a Muslim woman of color in rural Kentucky, the story of the coal wars between union miners and coal companies in West Virginia in the 1920s and the lost histories of Black Appalachians.

"Black in Appalachia" Courtesy Appalachian Retelling Project
“Black in Appalachia.” Courtesy Appalachian Retelling Project.

Michael Coleman, a Virginia Tech graduate teaching assistant who organized the festival, said that the films reflect the diverse faces and communities of rural America.

“If you’re from a rural place, it’s identity-affirming to see a depiction of your community,” Coleman said. “You feel seen, and you can be proud of that reflection.”

Wednesday’s festival also includes a panel discussion that includes Emily Satterwhite, Virginia Tech’s Director of Appalachian Studies; Tameka Grimes, a Tech counselor who studies racial trauma in rural communities; Jeff Mann, a poet and Tech writing teacher; and Jon Dance, a support specialist for people recovering from drug addiction.

The Center for Rural Education plans more public events this year, including the Rural Summit, Aug. 22-23, which includes “Dopesick” author and former newspaper reporter Beth Macy as keynote speaker. (Disclosure: Macy is a member of our journalism advisory committee but committee members have no role in news decisions.)

For Azano, the center and its public outreach are expressions of the university’s land-grant mission to provide opportunities to everybody from the region.

“This gets back to our roots,” Azano said. “Rural spaces are diverse, multi-lingual. We get myopic about rural spaces. This is an institutional effort to bring people together to meet the complexity of challenges rural areas face. We’re not trying to help rural areas because we’re desperate, but because we recognize the value of place.”

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke. Contact him at ralph.berrier@gmail.com.