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Nicole Riegel's 'Holler' Illuminates Life In Rust Belt Ohio

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Some films are intensely personal, a reflection of the person who made them and their lives. "Holler" is one of them. We follow the life of Ruth in a Rust Belt Ohio town in the film. The teenager spends her days collecting cans and scrap metal with her brother, trying to put together enough cash to avoid being evicted as she is torn between loyalty to her town, her family, and the dream of a college education. Nicole Riegel wrote and directed "Holler," and she told me that while the place in the movie is fictional, it is based and filmed where she grew up in Jackson, Ohio. I asked her what it was like to return to her hometown for this movie after working so hard to leave.

NICOLE RIEGEL: It was a full-circle moment for me, you know, to be in this town, this community, that I come from that is never accurately depicted on screen. And it felt really cathartic to finally have the power behind the camera to do it justice through my lived experience. But it was also really beautiful to - you'd be filming around certain landmarks in the town, all of these places that I walked as a teenager. And to - then, as a 33-year-old woman, to be filming a teenage version of myself was really powerful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to just ask you about something you just said, though, about it never being accurately depicted on film. What does that look like to you? I mean, your film is extremely layered. The characters are rich. What is it that you really wanted to evoke that you hadn't seen before?

RIEGEL: I wanted to see me. I wanted to see young women from that region who are smart, who have a sense of humor, who have a drive to them. I wanted to show other layers beyond a region that's known for an opioid epidemic in Hollywood. I think that when people in the entertainment industry, or in any kind of media, think about where I'm from in Appalachia, they certainly don't think of someone like myself. And I think it's been frustrating for me, and for the community I was born into, to see people sort of treat my hometown and where I come from as a research trip to learn about it and then make a film about it. But I grew up watching people on screen from Appalachia almost portrayed as jokes, as hillbillies, as ignorant, always men, never with a sense of humor or warmth or intelligence. You certainly don't have, you know, warm, nostalgic roller rink scenes. You don't see just a girl in a classroom seeking higher education.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, the character Ruth is a reflection of you - is what I'm hearing you say. Can you talk about your own journey getting out of Jackson?

RIEGEL: Yeah. You know, it's funny that I grew up wanting to get out of Jackson, only to - as a grown woman, I sort of had to, you know, return to this place in order to have a future. So when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a film director. I wanted to write and direct my films. And I applied to art schools, and I was accepted. And I didn't go because it felt like a betrayal to leave my family behind and my community, and no one in my family had ever gone to college at that point. So I was first-generation...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It really is like Ruth's story.

RIEGEL: It really is like Ruth's story. And I didn't go. I instead joined the Army National Guard because everyone in my family and my community joined the military. And so I truly felt that's where I belonged. And so I was at Fort Jackson, S.C., being trained on the M16A2 when I probably should have been learning how to expose film. And at the end of my military years, I went back to Ohio and enrolled in a film class at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. And I was introduced to the documentarians Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, and sort of my world was opened up to all of these incredible films. And it sort of got me thinking that maybe the biggest betrayal of all is to not pursue this. And then I moved to Los Angeles a few years later. I went to UCLA film school for graduate school. And early on, you know, I think the industry took a lot of interest in the scripts that I was writing, but the climate was very different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What has changed now, do you think, that allows a film like yours to be told about a young girl who, you know, has fear in her heart but is incredibly bright and also just is wondering what the edges of her world is going to look like?

RIEGEL: Yeah, I think what's really changed, especially within the entertainment industry - we are talking, like, very loudly about the treatment of women behind and in front of the camera. And when I was in Los Angeles and trying many years ago to make something, making short films, trying to make "Holler," it was so different because I was consistently asked to give my work over to a more powerful male director. I was asked this by men and women and that later in life I could make films. This would open a door for me and I wouldn't do it. I couldn't do it, and I'm glad I didn't do it. And then I think for me around the summer of 2018 is when I felt a shift and I felt more women forming companies and more women taking on the economic power and saying, we are going to invest in people like Nicole. We're going to invest in these women who are filmmakers. But women like me who - we needed that first shot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, listening to your story about the struggle to make this film, how intensely personal it was, now that it's going to be seen by the whole country, now that you've made it - I guess the question is, how do you feel?

RIEGEL: Regardless of reception, I feel relieved that I finally got to say what I wanted to say about how hard it is for a young woman from Appalachia to pursue an education, that I finally got the chance to make the film in the way I wanted to make the film, on my terms. I was able to show you the faces of my community. I can say that they had a say in their arcs and their storylines, that those are the real - all of the real places in that film. This film truly is a film from a young woman who came from that community, and I am so proud of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicole Riegel is the director and writer of the film "Holler." It will be in theaters starting June 11. Thank you very much.

RIEGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.