Nicole Riegel is the writer-director of Holler, about a young woman who takes a dangerous job on a scrap metal crew to pay for college. In this piece, she talks about her journey from living in a region studied by outsiders to telling her own story.
When I was growing up, a woman came to my hometown in southern Ohio, for a research piece on youth in the American Midwest, particularly Appalachia.
I remember my grandmother not allowing me to speak to her because her perception was that the woman was here to make fun of our community. It was common for outsiders to visit and photograph the region, but it was always frowned upon by our community out of sensitivity to our portrayal onscreen. We knew it was a luxury to travel to Appalachia for art.
I grew up with no access to filmmaking. No courses on it were offered in the school system, but I was drawn to the medium because it’s the most visceral art form in the way that it combines sight and sound into a singular experience. Because I’m an introverted and deep-thinking person, cinema has always been somewhat of a journal: a space for me to reflect and unpack my anxieties and experiences.
However, the closest I got to the art of storytelling was through my family and their friends, who routinely gathered to play bluegrass, folk and country music — until I started working at a movie theater as a teenager and discovered the world of cinema.
From then on, I spent every paycheck on movies and director biographies, and my grandmother introduced me to three films that left a permanent impression on me: Elia Kazan’s Splendor In The Grass and On The Waterfront, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda. We were a working class union family, and I think that’s why she introduced those films to me.
From there I found Vittorio de Sica and Italian neo-realism on library DVDs, the British working class cinema of Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach in college, and, as my cinematic world continued to expand, Andrea Arnold, whose films have always felt like journal entries to me.
During my senior year of high school, I was accepted to a prestigious drama program in New York, I ultimately turned down my big chance because it felt like a betrayal to those who raised me. They didn’t deserve for me to leave them with their struggles, and the guilt was overwhelming. None of it felt fair. Instead, I declined the offer and joined the Army National Guard instead.
I shipped to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic combat training months later, because that’s where I felt I belonged. When I came home from the military, I enrolled in a film course at Wright State University, making sure not to go too far from home. It was taught by documentarians Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar and focused on films made by women. It made glaringly obvious what wasn’t previously obvious to me: I could follow in the footsteps of these trailblazing women and re-open the door that I had closed for myself years ago.
I realized that the ultimate betrayal to my family wasn’t leaving, but rather it was not pursuing my passion.
Through all of these detours and struggles, I finally found my way to Holler. I began writing Holler in 2015, but I quickly learned that financiers, producers, and the industry at large weren’t disposed to supporting a film with a working-class woman at the center. At the same time, there were projects coming together in Hollywood that took place in my backyard, but I couldn’t get hired to tell those stories, either. I was an outsider even when I was an insider. I soon realized that in order to move forward, I had to go back home and make Holler in a way that didn’t require the permission of traditional Hollywood gatekeepers.
I travelled back to the post-industrial Midwest with its scrap yards, manufacturing plants where I passed the picket lines as a child, neighborhoods and dive bars I knew by heart, and the local musicians and waitresses that populated them. I knew I wanted the people of these communities to populate my film. To me, they weren’t extras and they were certainly more than background. As a rule, their lives informed their characters and they had a say in their arcs and storylines.
Holler was made with love and compassion for these people and they in turn changed my life. In the end, all of the reasons I left Southern Ohio became the reasons that I needed to return. Except I wasn’t a person visiting for research, like those my grandmother told me to stay away from when I was young. I didn’t form a conclusion about an entire population based on a quick Google search.
I knew and respected the air I was breathing, because I lived it. It’s a place of beauty and humor that has its struggles like any other, but I rarely saw the former in cinema. Instead, the representations I did see made it a place that one could easily grow up to be ashamed of. For most of cinema’s history in America, people with money have told the stories of those without money. Those stories continue to color our collective perceptions.
Holler would be different. It would be told independently and by one of their own. The title itself serves two purposes. A holler can be a back road, slang for hollows that are well-known in Appalachia. Secondly, a holler can be a yell or battle cry. That’s exactly what Holler is. A battle cry for a population that is usually depicted as old, white, male, and backward. In reality it is a diverse region filled with wealth and poverty, white and Black, women and men, young and old, queer and straight, and it is deeply misunderstood.
It is misunderstood because few from the hollers find themselves behind the camera for the very reasons shown in my film. During the first week of filming, a stream of young girls would show up to watch the production and film us with their iPhones. When I was a seventeen, I didn’t have that up-close access to a film production and it made me so joyous for them. One of those girls approached me and confided that she couldn’t wait to leave Jackson and finally do something with her life.
That made me think of U.S. Route 35, the road that takes you out of town to do something with your life. But roads go two ways, and Route 35 also took me back to Holler.
Holler, directed by Nicole Riegel, will be released in select theaters and digital platforms on Friday, June 11.
Main image: Jessica Barden in Holler, a film by Nicole Riegel.