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Stranger with a Camera (2000)

A look at the reaction and aftermath of the murder of a documentary filmmaker in rural Kentucky in 1967.


Elizabeth Barret


Fenton Johnson
1 win & 2 nominations. See more awards »


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A look at the reaction and aftermath of the murder of a documentary filmmaker in rural Kentucky in 1967.

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Official Sites:

PBS [United States]



Release Date:

January 2000 (USA) See more »

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Did You Know?


Elizabeth Barrett: What are the responsibilities of any of us who take the images of other people and put them to our own uses? Hobert Ison was wrong to kill Hugh O'Connor, but saying that is not enough for me. It is the filmmaker's job, my job, to tell fairly what I see, to be true to the experiences of both Hugh O'Connor and Hobert Ison, and in the end to trust that that is enough.
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User Reviews

Fair and accurate portrayals
4 April 2001 | by lwhite01See all my reviews

Though the title is accurate to describe the portion of the film that's about Hugh O'Connor, Elizabeth Barret's Stranger with a Camera is more precisely about strangers with cameras in a particular part of Appalachian Kentucky. As in most any documentary, Barret is faced with the task of accurately portraying a group of people and a way of life with which most people are unfamiliar. Fortunately, she is able to see the topic through two very important lenses – that of a filmmaker and that of a resident. Without the latter qualification, Barret arguably would have been in no better position to make a commentary on the place or the particulars of O'Connor's death than any of the filmmaking predecessors (i.e. CBS) she features. Primarily, though, she is telling the story of O'Connor and his crew and Hobart Ison and the people of Jeremiah, Kentucky. Clearly, both of these groups will tell their stories, but the challenge comes in how to capture them on film. These distinctly different groups will come across on film in very different ways. As Barret's voice over tells us in the end, `My job is to tell fairly what I see . . . and trust that that is enough.' Does she accomplish this? By interviewing the people in their natural environments and letting them give their interpretations of the events without giving much of her own commentary, Barret leaves the judging up to the viewers. Unfortunately, when a person who has grown up and lived in Appalachia all of his or her life is positioned next to a highly educated, well-traveled person in a documentary, he or she will inevitably look a little foolish to most viewers. Mason's scraggly teeth, stuttering, and slightly incoherent speech pit him as a simpleton. Though he gives one of the only firsthand accounts of the killing, he could come across to the viewer in a less than credible light. Mason is not a player in this narrative who can be left out. Without a doubt, Barret had to include him, and her editing decisions surrounding this person must have been tough. Critics have often asked Barret and the film's producer, Judi Jennings, why they chose not to use subtitles with this man and other Appalachian residents featured in the film. Both she and Jennings have said that this would demeaned and belittled them. However, Alexander Hammid's, one of O'Connor's crew, interview sequence used subtitles. Hammid both had an accent and spoke softly. He is arguably no more difficult to understand than Mason. Yet, because he is more educated and makes a better impression on most viewers, it is somehow judged as more appropriate to include subtitles for his answers. When interviewees are foreign, including subtitles isn't offensive, even if they're speaking in English. Since Mason is both a native English speaker and a life-long resident of this country, the filmmakers deemed it inappropriate to include this viewer's aid. Not all of the Jeremiah residents are as difficult to understand as Mason though. Both Ison's attorney, Polly, and the publishers of The Mountain Eagle, though their opinions were polar opposites, came across as educated and credible. They matched the screen presence of members of the Canadian crew, such as Richard Black and Colin Low. Though I'm sure that most people in Eastern Kentucky were at least somewhat sympathetic of Ison and other exploited neighbors before the film, most people from other parts of the country and the world would have probably been more supportive of the film crew and their rights. However, near the film's conclusion, when we hear Black, the most prominent of the film crew, describe the defense summation from Ison's trial as `a poem about Eastern Kentucky that was beautiful' and one that ended up being more about the values of an Appalachian community than a man who pulled a trigger, we suddenly begin to empathize with the community. When the filmmakers and O'Connor's daughter, Ann, are able to forgive Ison, the viewer can too.

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