As first-time filmmakers, Chelsea & Andrew Moynehan were ready to share duties and roles between themselves, but at the outset they didn’t have a story, just an idea and a setting: a beautiful corner of Appalachia in southwest Virginia. Chelsea grew up in New York, and her husband Andrew is from England. As outsiders coming to document life in the rural south, respect was their first priority, and the result is Big Moccasin, a film that treads lightly when it comes to the people it portrays.
“We’re both coming from a photography background,” says Chelsea. “We knew how to tell stories, but we didn’t know the proper way to do things. It was a lot of trial and error. We went down there with literally the most shoestring of budgets. We knew what we didn’t want to do, what film we didn’t want to make, and we kind of had to learn the film we did want to make.”
Chelsea has roots in the area. Her mother was raised there, but moved away when she was a young woman. During the summers, as a child, Chelsea spent weeks there with her grandparents. The differences between the woody area around Clinch Mountain and her life back in suburban Long Island, New York, stuck in her mind as a contrast in lifestyles. Major shifts were rare along Big Moccasin Road, the 20-mile stretch of country road that gives its name to the film.
“There is something beautiful in a way of life that’s not consumed with who you hang out with, what you watch on TV or anything like that,” says Andrew. “There’s less distractions, so it seemed only right to make a simple film about a much simpler form of life.”
The Moynehans have a strong respect for the four figures at the center of their film. Geraldine Frazier is an elderly widow whose making the most of the end of her life. Polo Harris is a chain-smoking father who wears his heart on his sleeve, born and raised on Big Moccasin Road just like his best friend Steve Burke, who is a light beer loving good old boy through and through. The good-natured Mouse, another man in his sixties, enjoys hunting and being close to the nature of the area.
“Because we were living there and because we were constantly around and visiting people, we were able to form friendships with the four main characters in the film,” Andrew says. “We followed a lot of different leads and spread our net a lot further initially. We wanted it to be something bigger, but when we were down there, these guys really stood out to us. Although they all live on the road, they also live very different lives. They’re not all doing the same thing, they don’t all have the same beliefs.”
The Moynehans spent four months of a fall season in the area getting to know these people, recording them, and observing their lifestyles. The film doesn’t focus on their occupations or even much on their family lives, choosing instead to let the people reminisce about the past or unwind their thoughts on faith and both the internal and external forces that keep them satisfied to live in relative isolation in the valley. Their words are often used over footage of scenery or a disconnected action, like Mouse preparing food as his thoughts on God’s omnipresence roll on the soundtrack. The land, the trees, the animals, the people, their beliefs, all weave together.
Just as important as the visual landscape is the music. Scott County was the birthplace of the Carter Family, and their old time country and bluegrass legacy lives on at the Carter Fold, a venue that holds weekly shows. Electric amplification, smoking, and drinking are prohibited there, and the live performances the couple saw there had an impact on them.
“This is their life, music is their life. It’s not something they do to escape their life,” Chelsea Says. “There will be a 15 year old mandolin player on stage with a 65 year old bass player. Preserving the culture is such a large part of what Appalachia is.”
Andrew & Chelsea fortuitously saw a young group at the Carter Fold called Folk Soul Revival, who wound up creating the soundtrack to their film. “They’re from very close to there,” Andrew says. “We wanted to get somebody involved locally, someone who knew the area and who could play from their hearts when they were doing this atmospheric music [for the film].”
There’s also the music of the churches, the collective hymns and the gospel quartets, and, most achingly, Geraldine’s singing along over the phone while alone in her own home, her fingers sliding across the pages of her own personal hymnal. Religious faith and respect for relationships are highlighted through the film in a way that shows how the subjects’ beliefs are integrated into their lives, not the defining aspects of their personalities.
At just over an hour, Big Moccasin feels like a short trip through a place, but the visit is a meaningful one. It is a survey of life in a rural valley, with perhaps the most poignant moments and discussions of the Moynehans’ time there all collected into a non-narrative but engaging film. The curious viewer will come away with questions about things left unexplained, but probably also the desire to revisit certain scenes and passages. The Moynehans’ talent with their cameras aided by the natural pace of the music and the earnest disclosures they were able to evoke from their subjects all combine to make a memorable film about a way of life that is too often described by shorthand stereotypes.
Big Moccasin plays Saturday, October 18, 2014, 3:15 p.m. and Thursday, October 23, 2014, 6:15 p.m. at the Theatres at Canal Place. For tickets visit the New Orleans Film Festival website. For more information on the film, visit the Big Moccasin website.
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary.