Ohioan Nicole Riegel’s Feature Holler Opens
Filmmaker and Ohioan Nicole Riegel is tired of the depiction of Appalachia and Appalachians she sees in films and media. Her film Holler, hitting theaters across the country Friday, may set that record straight.
“I have a chip on my shoulder about films made about where I’m from in Appalachia because a lot of them are made by people who never really visit where I’m from in Ohio,” Riegel says. “Girls like me are rarely given the chance to get behind the camera and control the narrative. I think that’s why Appalachian states like Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky have the reputations that they do.”
Reigel’s coming-of-age film follows Ruth, played by an explosive Jessica Barden. On the verge of graduating from high school, Ruth struggles to find a way to make a better life for herself.
Riegel, who grew up in Jackson, Ohio, wanted to give the world a more realistic view of lives like her own.
“I want to make a film about my life because I lived it,” she says. “I wanted to make a story about my own pursuit of an education and why it was so hard for me to go away to college. When I was 17, I didn’t understand that maybe this teacher is discouraging me because this individual wants to make life easier for me. There’s no malicious intent, they just think they’re doing the right thing.”
Looking back at the experience, she sees the larger implications of her own experience.
“I didn’t have access to FAFSA or grants or programs because nobody told me about them. And why didn’t’ they tell me? Because they didn’t expect that from me. And I began to recognize all of these systems and I said I need to make a film about this existence, about Ruth’s existence, for others to see.”
To retain a sense of authenticity, Riegel shot in the area where she grew up.
“I filmed it in my hometown of Jackson, Ohio and some neighboring counties, like Ross County and Chillicothe and all across southeast Ohio,” she says. “It’s very important that someone like me has a seat at the Hollywood table and gets to make a movie like Holler. That doesn’t mean I’m presenting everything in a positive light but in a fair light and an empathetic light. And that’s why I went home to make it. There are no soundstages in Holler. Holler is Appalachia.”
There are very few films that truthfully depict American poverty—Nomadland, Little Woods, Winter’s Bone and Frozen River among them—but Riegel says that these excellent films did not make it easier for her to get Holler financed.
“It was a hard film to get off the ground,” she says. “Part of it is that people don’t like social realism a lot in Hollywood circles—and in other circles, too. One reason it rubs people the wrong way is it reminds you that this is not a meritocracy. It can make people feel bad about their life and how they live it. But when I watched Winter’s Bone or Ken Loach films or Andrea Arnold, I feel seen. And it was very hard to get financing for Holler because a lot of people who finance movies, rarely have they lived lives like the ones in these films.”
But that only makes it more important for Holler to be seen. What does Riegel hope viewers take away from her film?
“If they could just take one thing and nothing else, I hope it’s a very different, fuller, richer portrait of Appalachia and Appalachian women and where it is that I come from,” she says. “I hope people watch the film in that area and they feel seen, like, ‘OK, finally someone made a film and they didn’t make fun of us.’”
Riegel thinks there’s something in the film for those who wouldn’t see themselves in Holler, too.
“I hope people watch it and say, ‘Wow, there’s a sense of humor there. There’s warmth there. I understand this system a little more. There are not just old, white, straight, conservative men there. I feel that’s missing. It’s missing in narrative film; it’s missing in media. I want Holler to contribute a more positive and realistic portrait to that library of stories about the region.”