by Kristin Schrader
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In a time full of war, inner city poverty, deception in business, and cut-throat political campaigns the world could use a little optimism from the hills. But even the pastoral hills of rural Kentucky hide a dark side. There’s no way a rural political documentary could leave a viewer feeling anything but betrayed and sickened by the human condition, right?
Maybe somewhere, but not in Rabbit Hash.
Writer, director, and co-producer Jude Gerard Prest brings us Rabbit Hash: The Center of the Universe to reaffirm all that is fine about America without couching the good news in anything syrupy or patriotic. The film is based on the election of a local dog-about-town to the respected office of Mayor of Rabbit Hash. Boone County Kentucky was celebrating its heritage, and each tiny burg was asked to present an event or festival to draw visitors and attention to the region. In a nod to the respected Kentucky tradition of “One dollar-one vote,” Rabbit Hash ran a fundraiser/election to the post of mayor. As the actual municipality of Rabbit Hash only retains five souls within city limits, the position is largely ceremonial. As the election heated up it became apparent that the object of financial support did not necessarily require opposable thumbs, and the region began to run those of which they were most proud, the animals.
Rabbit Hash ended up electing a 15 year-old mixed breed named Goofy, whose campaign slogan “If you can’t eat it or f*ck it, then piss on it,” resonates timelessly through any campaign season. Goofy focused on civil engineering, traffic management to be exact, and is described by one local as a “canine speed bump.” His propensity to “mark” tires led to effective parking management despite the town’s lack of parking meters. But Goofy, his rival potbellied pig, and even the human hopefuls are not the true focus of this film.
The story of Rabbit Hash, for that is what this film is really about, unfolds through the narrative of the residents of the area. This town near Cincinnati sits on the banks of the Ohio River, which rolls lazily through the film from time to time, ever a reminder of why people would have settled here in the first place. The name of the town came after a particularly aggressive flood drove bunny after bunny out of their burrows, up the hill, and into the waiting fry pans of hungry settlers. The residents today have all the temerity of their forbearers, even developing hinge systems to hold the buildings to their foundations in the inevitable event of flood. It is the attitude of the locals that makes this film as appealing as it is.
When confronted with banjo music and an orator in overalls it’s easy to go into autopilot and let the “folksy” wash over you, dismissing it as irrelevant and cloying. In Rabbit Hash the absolute opposite is achieved. The self appointed historian of the town points out again and again the benefits of living the life that they do, and by golly, the viewer can not help but want it. Truly this should have been an annoying film that made the viewer feel shallow and separate, but the town isn’t simple or saccharine, it’s just nice. The election idea raised funds to maintain an old church building, and they raised a ton of money. The residents of the town throw their all into maintaining the integrity of the life which they have chosen without becoming a freakish historical reenactment. Sure they have log cabins, but they have built them, and they really did build them, with highly functional computer centers and really beautiful bathrooms. The charming children who add to the narrative aren’t too cute, and they know full well that people might accuse them of being “Hill Jacks.” They let the viewers know they aren’t, but one gets the feeling they don’t care what we think, that they are just letting us know. The whole canine election thing is one reason to spend time in Rabbit Hash, but not the only one by far.
Prest’s version of Rabbit Hash could easily have been less than subtle. It could have been a bitter look at the election process and a statement on the limited choices Americans have for political candidates. Instead the anecdotes about road-kill reanimation and small game recipes mingle freely with interviews with authors, inventors, and interjections from country music star Wynonna Judd. Does she live there? Is she just a fan? The viewer doesn’t really learn, but Judd’s thoughtful commentary from within a pile of puppies just adds to the unlikely and magical feel of the town. Every once in awhile a primitive animation takes over the screen, my favorite being the hordes of rabbits moving across the hills. Is it hokey? Yes! Is it camp? Sure, I guess. Will Rabbit Hash realize a large influx of outsiders trying to get a piece of what they’ve got? You bet they will. It’s a cold movie-goer that won’t find themselves somewhat smitten with the leisurely pace of the film and the characters that define it.
If we are better people we will leave the town to its business, and make do with this bit of joyful documentary. There are no emotional traps set, there are no liberties taken with the chain of events. There is just a town on a river, an election where the best dog wins, and a film made that doesn’t patronize the honesty and good humor with which these folks have infused their lives.
Kristin Schrader lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She watches lots of movies, writes for a living, and has never voted a four-legged animal into office… that she’s aware of.
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