Big Moccasin is a new documentary film by two young NYC-based filmmakers, Andrew & Chelsea Moynehan. It’s an intimate look into the lives of four people who live on Big Moccasin Road, a 20-mile stretch of pavement in southwest Virginia. The film just had its World Premiere April 27 at Visions Du Réel (Visions of Reality) in Switzerland, a prestigious week long international documentary film festival held since 1969. Chelsea Moynehan has family roots in southwest Virginia, and so we caught up with her last week to ask her just how those roots shaped the couple’s vision for the movie.
“Big Moccasin stems from a deep, personal connection with Appalachia,” Chelsea told us. “It is a place that I visited quite often as a young girl. It was the birthplace of my grandmother and grandfather, and the home of my relatives. Southwest Virginia was a place that I would go to and marvel at its simple wonders.
“I was raised in Long Island, New York, in a dominantly Jewish community. My father was from the Bronx. When I would visit my grandparents in the mountains, I felt as if I was being transported in time. It was so far disconnected from my life in New York, from the modern and material things. I was confused by the people, by the land, the food, and the thick mountain dialects. It was something that I didn’t understand, yet it all felt so familiar.
“When my grandfather passed, he was buried in the backyard of their house- in the same raw dirt that birthed my grandmother’s tomatoes. I still remember the smell of his spit. The scent of cherry flavored chewing tobacco has stayed with me throughout my life. It was these visceral memories; the scents, the sounds, and the tradition, that brought me back to Appalachia. This time, as a young filmmaker on a journey to create a depiction of Appalachian life as I remembered it. I wanted to show the area in a way that was unseen by a lot of people. It was important for me to look at the area as an outsider, but with the insight of someone on the inside. The same simplicity which had once baffled me would later intrigue me.
“I met Andrew, the co-creator of Big Moccasin, while studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I was in the last year of my BFA, and Andrew was at the tail end of his year-long photography residency. I had been nominated for the Tierney Award, a prestigious photography grant awarded to one student every year upon graduation from SVA. I was asked to write a project proposal. I wrote a lengthy, poetic proposal that would later become Big Moccasin.
“Andrew was immediately connected to the character-based storytelling to which I had proposed. I was a fan of his work that had, in some ways, mirrored this project and it’s intent. So, we became partners in this endeavor. I didn’t win the Tierney Award, but three months after graduation, Andrew and I packed up all of our stuff, and headed down to the mountains to make the film.
“When we first arrived on Big Moccasin Road, we were completely unsure as to who would become our characters, how we were going to develop them, or where our story would lie. We were convinced that there was something to tell. We knew that we wanted to look at multiple people, to achieve a rounded vision of Appalachian culture. Big Moccasin Road is a place that is full of stories, life philosophies, haunting memories, and deep tradition. We wanted to create a portrait of this.
“Our first week there, we never took out our cameras. We wanted to see what kind of relationships we could form and how people in the community would receive us. We started meeting local musicians, artists, craftsmen, taxidermists, hunters, and preachers. We would meet people, visit them once or twice, talk to them about what they do and its influence of Appalachian culture and everyday life. We were regularly visiting Geraldine, Polo, Steve and Mouse, the protagonists of the film. They were very open with us and willing to share all with the camera. Our presence was almost non-existent when the camera was there. They opened up to us, let us into their homes, and told us intimate details about life and death.
“We were there during the height of the 2012 presidential election. Though the politics of the region were quite strong, and this, for coal miners, was a particularly important election, we chose not to turn our cameras onto what was happening politically. We went to Appalachia with the idea that this film would be simple, and it would be about simple things. Making a political portrait would detract from the timelessness of the region that was of value, to both the people we met and to us as filmmakers.
“Big Moccasin is a preservation of Appalachian life. A majority of the people featured in the film are of the older generation, though there is a small presence of youth that exists, helping to illustrate the circular chain of life and it’s events. Big Moccasin sets these characters in this timeless backdrop, and through its patient way of looking at a region, it aims to tell the way of Appalachia as subtly and uniquely as the area and its people.”