Pictured, from left, are 'O Pioneer' film director Jonathan Lacocque; Tim Hibbs, one of the three people the film follows; and director Clara Lehmann. The three are standing in the space Hibbs plans to transform into the new home of the Infamous Art Collective. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

New documentary starring local blacksmith reimagines what it means to be a modern-day Appalachian pioneer

BUCKHANNON – A new documentary starring an Upshur County native invites viewers to peer into the lives of three modern West Virginian pioneers.

“O Pioneer” is a documentary following three West Virginians over the span of about two years as they practice their crafts, deal with an ongoing pandemic, and live their everyday lives.

“‘O Pioneer’ redefines what it means to be a pioneer, and it’s through the lens of three West Virginians – modern-day Appalachians,” Director Clara Lehmann said. “We follow these individuals for about two years, and you get to see some of the hardships they face, but also the beautiful and amazing things they’re doing within the state of West Virginia.”

Director Jonathan Lacocque said they also made the film to tell true West Virginian stories.

“A subsequent aspect to why we made the film was wanting to tell West Virginia stories in West Virginia,” Lacocque said. “It’s a homegrown film, made entirely here in the state, and it gives external people a perspective of what it’s like to live here that isn’t the more typical representations you see in the news.”

The film follows James Morley of Bridgeport, W.Va., Tim Hibbs of Queens, W.Va., and Nellie Rose Gundersen Davis of Thomas, W.Va., and is narrated by musician Kaïa Kater.

“What has typically been a pioneer in history? A lot of times they’re blacksmiths like Tim; a lot of times they’re artists, seamstresses or clothing makers, like Nellie who is an avant-garde seamstress, so she makes artful clothing,” Lehmann said. “Then, a lot of times, they are missionaries or people who go out and spread the gospel of whatever their faith is, and that is James, who is a hospital chaplain and minister. We selected those people based on those verticals, but also what was available to us, being West Virginians.”

The film was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” which was a favorite of Lehmann’s grandmother and of Lehmann herself.

“My grandmother used to recite it to push us forward and prod us as children like, ‘Hey, get out there and keep going and do your best and pull up your bootstraps!’ and so I reflected on that and was like, ‘Why was that? Why is that meaningful? What does it mean?’ Lehmann said.

“I started asking, ‘How do you become a pioneer?’” she said. “We all love the term ‘pioneer,’ and we admire them, but how can we find a middle ground to this pioneer that can do so much and transform a space that’s maybe not livable to another pioneer who goes to space and invents new medicines and things like that? How can we find the bridge to these two types of pioneers?”

Lacocque said he also wanted to redefine a pioneer as something attainable and local but still inspiring.

“Part of the redefining of what it means to be a pioneer was grounding it; you don’t have to go to Mars or space or inspire the nation in some way, politically or through some invention to do good,” Lacocque said. “I think part of what is at the core of this film is to try and get people interested in conversing with each other, with their neighbors and ultimately their communities again.”

“So, that’s why in many ways, we picked Tim, Nellie and James because these were three people that we knew we were inspired by — but these are everyday people,” he continued. “They’re not on billboards; they’re not famous, so the intention there is to show audiences that even when you’re in the seats of the theater, or at home, watching this film, you could in some ways be on screen or your neighbor could be on screen, you should be celebrated too, so that’s really where the redefining of a pioneer goes in the film.”

Hibbs said he was surprised when Lehmann and Lacocque recruited him to be in the film. Hibbs is a skilled artist and blacksmith who would later become the founder of the Infamous Art Collective in Upshur County.

“I thought, ‘Why in the world would they have picked me to do it? Surely there are more interesting people out there than me,’” Hibbs recalled. “That was my first thought – honest to God – and then after that, I was like, ‘Well, I have a lot of respect for them as artists, and as people, so I don’t want to make them wish they wouldn’t have asked me.’”

“It took a minute for me to understand what my role in it was,” he added. “I’ll be honest — I didn’t really know what we were fully up to until I saw the screening.”

Hibbs said none of the subjects had any interaction with each other while they were filming, so it was hard to foresee how the movie would play out.

“I know what my role was when I was doing it, but I didn’t know how they were going to piece it together and what it was going to look like; I was amazed at how well they were able to put it together without any of the three of us meeting each other,” Hibbs said.

“I had no idea what their lives were like during those two years, but the way all our stories unfolded and the way they were able to weave them together in a way that it seemed like we were collaborating, but there was no collaboration at all [was striking],” he added. “It was just very similar – the threads of experience, completely different experiences entirely – but at the same time, there were these things that made it all seem similar.”

The project kicked off in 2020 – right before the pandemic hit – and the filming of the documentary took place throughout most of 2020 while strict COVID-19 guidelines were still in effect.

“Tim was philosophically questioning what the point of things were, so he really shares some of that reflection – what was going on historically in the moment with his own lens, like how he and his parents navigate through what was special and important to them, so it’s pretty cool,” Lehmann said.

Lacocque said it was hard to say what each story would become because each person was going through their own experiences, although they were taking place within the same time frame.  

“We had no idea what Tim [Hibbs] and his family were going to go through, what he was going to be doing artistically, so a lot of that time in those first few years was just seeing where it goes and allowing the winds of creativity to take you,” Lacocque said. “One thing I’ll say that’s amazing about Tim is we can almost make another movie about him because he’s gone on to do more than what we captured like forming the Infamous Art Collective is something that was birthed after I finished editing the film.”

Lacocque said Hibbs’s story in the film is also unique because of its emphasis on family.

“One reason we love his participation in the film is that it’s very approachable in the sense that it’s family-oriented and a lot of the journey he goes through as an artist to a stay-at-home father and a homeschooler,” Lacocque said. “I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that, especially regarding the pandemic and the struggles all of us had at that time, but even beyond that, we also follow his journey in an artistic endeavor that I also think is important.”

The documentary will be screened at several upcoming festivals, including Cinequest Aug. 27 and Aug. 30, the Richmond International Film Festival Sept. 28 and the MTN Craft Film Festival Sept. 30.

“Our first mission is to do the festival circuit, and a lot of times, filmmakers go through this festival circuit first, and then we’re hoping to leverage that in order to get a proper offer from a distributor, or we will self-distribute,” Lehmann said. “Our goal was to make sure West Virginians get to see this, we want the whole country and the world to see it, but this is by, for and about West Virginians.”

More information about the documentary’s subjects, upcoming showings and a trailer can be found on the O Pioneer website.

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