Filmmakers Andrew (an alumnus of SVA’s PhotoGlobal program) and Chelsea (BFA 2012 Photography) Moynehan captured a way of life that is quintessentially American, but in decline. Named for a stretch of road that winds through the remote valleys of Appalachia in western Virginia, Big Moccasin is an intimate portrait of four people struggling to uphold the traditions of their culture in a rapidly changing world. SVA Close Up caught up with the filmmaking couple in advance of a screening of their documentary on Monday, March 30, 7:00pm at the SVA Theater (333 West 23rd Street).
Chelsea, you have a family connection to the area of Appalachia where Big Moccasin takes place. Was this a project that you’d wanted to pursue for a longtime, or were there other circumstances that brought it about?
That region of the country has always inspired me. As a young child, visiting my family awakened senses in me that I was never exposed to growing up in the suburbs of Long Island. It was so far removed, so disconnected from everything I knew, yet it felt incredibly familiar. I loved that time seemed to move slower. Every part of my grandmother’s yard was an area of exploration for me. I felt as if it were my own personal wilderness, and the vastness of the mountain and the valley allowed me to roam inquisitively. That is what I romanticized; the true sense of raw living. The earth had a different smell. I guess I would have to say a romanticized nostalgia brought me there. Big Moccasin was something I wanted to make before I even knew how to make it.
Andrew, as you were born and raised in England, what does Appalachia mean to you, and what drew you to the area as subject for filming?
Chelsea approached me with the idea of making a film there. She had written a beautiful page of text describing her childhood memories of visiting her grandmother, and when reading it I was transported to a very different America than I had personally experienced. I’d of course seen images and heard some loose stories of what to expect. However, I went there with an open heart and mind. I was personally drawn to the culture and contrast of living in New York. It seemed like there was much more time to think and reflect.
Did you encounter any resistance from the people of Big Moccasin who were reluctant to have their lives filmed? Was there any suspicion that they might be taken advantage of?
Chelsea: We were very wary of it seeming that way. There are many docs and films that set out to exploit Appalachia and shed negative light on the “poverty” of the region. Since I was so familiar with the area, I never even considered it as a “poor” place. I saw it as a unique, loving community with a strong identity that was confident in its culture. I think that if I didn’t have the family connection people might have been much more wary of our presence. Everyone up and down the valley knew my grandparents, and that kinship really opened up a lot of possibilities and relationships. I arrived not knowing anyone and I left with good friends.
What was the biggest take away from your experience in Big Moccasin?
Andrew: We began with a loose idea of what the film could be, and left a lot of room for our characters to be themselves and tell their own stories. The film we ended up making is a reflection on life, death and the human condition. The landscape of rural America is changing and the population is shrinking due to the younger generation of people moving away to more urban areas for employment, and as the aging communities are naturally declining, that is having a major impact on the cultural traditions of the region. Big Moccasin marks a moment in time before this way of life disappears altogether.
What do you hope people seeing the film will understand about the people of Big Moccasin and their way life?
Andrew: The region’s appearance in film and television is often skewed or distorted for the benefit of entertainment. I hope the audience will take away a level of understanding and appreciation for the beauty of simplicity. Maybe even a new perspective on their own lives. And of course, I hope that they will enjoy taking a trip down Big Moccasin Road.
The Big Moccasin screening on Monday, March 30 will be followed by a live Q&A with the filmmakers. For more info, click here.