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Portraits Of Truth

Portraits Of TruthIn his new documentary, “Country Boys,” Tufts graduate and acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland gives audiences a rare, up close and personal glimpse into the lives of two Kentucky teenagers as they come of age in poverty-stricken rural America.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.11.06] In 1998, he captivated 18 million viewers and awed critics nationwide with “The Farmer’s Wife,” his gripping portrayal of a struggling Nebraskan farm family. Eight years later, all eyes are on Tufts graduate and acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland as he makes his return to rural America with the heavily publicized documentary “Country Boys.” The film draws audiences deep into Appalachian Kentucky to bare witness to the hope and despair of two boys as they navigate a complicated journey into manhood.

The six-hour, three-part documentary which aired Jan. 9-11 on PBS’ “Frontline,” is an “extraordinary portrait of two boys living poor and against the odds in rural America,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “There is hope in the hopelessness, unabashed nakedness in the fly-on-the-wall documentary style and, finally, confirmation that we may all have a hand in our own fate.”

The film chronicles the late teenage years of Chris Johnson, a troubled youth plagued by a behavior disorder and an alcoholic father, and Cody Perkins, a born-again Christian who was orphaned at a young age. Sutherland, who earned a degree in political science from Tufts in 1967, spent three years filming the boys in the eastern Kentucky hamlet of Prestonsburg, devoting himself to their every move.

"The way I do it takes so long because I want you to get into their skin," he told the Baltimore Sun.

And critics overwhelmingly agree that Sutherland succeeds in that endeavor.

“His effort is heroic and his access astonishing during the filming from 1999-2002,” The Boston Globe reported. “At its best, ‘Country Boys’ is compelling human drama, moving and unredeemingly sad. It provides the kind of rich, nuanced grasp of its characters more common to literature than television.”

The Sun described Sutherland as a “story painter,” who is considered to be “one of the nation’s greatest practitioners of the [documentary] form.”

“If film is his canvas, he primes it with research, carefully blocks out his story with narrative, then brushes in light and shadow with sound,” the Sun reported. “Never mind closing the distance between viewer and object viewed, this filmmaker all but obliterates that distinction through his own intense identification and empathy with the people he films.”

Becoming empathetic with his subjects, the Massachusetts native explained, is essential to his craft.

"The only way I can make the kind of film I do is to absorb the pain that I witness," Sutherland told the Sun. "I have to care about the people in the film so much because I'm a portraitist … To make my portraits, I need those emotional nuances. I need … to be able to feel and hear them sighing and breathing from 100 yards away. Getting that close leaves me battered emotionally and physically, but it is the only way of doing documentaries that interests me."

In filming “The Farmer’s Wife,” Sutherland’s acclaimed 1998 “Frontline” documentary about a young Nebraska couple struggling to make ends meet, he spent years immersing himself in the everyday lives of Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter and their three children. The end result, according to the Chicago Tribune: “a breathtaking piece of work” that was “one of the extraordinary television events of the decade.”

While “Country Boys” promises to have an equally powerful impact on viewers, Sutherland told The New YorkTimes that he never had a specific message in mind for the film. “He said he just wanted to ‘make kids think about their own lives’ and older people ‘think about the possibilities, about what kids are going through,’” the newspaper reported.

Sutherland’s approach, according to the Los Angeles Times, is on target.

“If there is a message to extract, it might be that every kid needs a sympathetic adult in his life, but I think that's almost an incidental point,” the Los Angeles paper reported. “I'm not sure Sutherland has a point, beyond awakening a feeling of common humanity in his viewers, and I can't imagine a better one. Insofar as any edited work can be executed nonjudgmentally, this comes close to that ideal. It's a rare thing on television, such passionate dispassion -- but then, it's a rare thing anywhere.”

And so is Sutherland.

“No one makes documentaries the way David Sutherland does,” the Sun reported. “And perhaps no one ever will; the toll is too great.”


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