If ever Appalachian banjo music could be described as having a punk rock sensibility, it’s in the music of Lee Sexton. Punctuated, proprietary, and aggressive, the raw power of his banjo was first recorded in 1959 for the landmark release Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian/Folkways Records); it was through this recording that we were first inspired to travel to Kentucky to meet Lee and his wife, Opal. But while music provided the initial impetus for the project, it is one among many driving forces in Linefork.
Employing observational takes and patient editing, Linefork is an immersive documentary that brings a vanishing traditional culture and a marginalized demographic to the screen. Married for more than 40 years, Lee and Opal live in Linefork, a geographically remote area in eastern Kentucky. While decades of work in the coal mines have left Lee with black lung disease and other injuries, his love of the mines--and the steady work they provided--remains. Together, Lee and Opal face the myriad issues associated with aging, and do so energetically and with humor. Linefork focuses on them as individuals and as a couple: self-reliant and interdependent.
Extraordinary access to Lee and Opal’s daily lives mark this project as unique among biographical music documentaries, particularly those featuring traditional musicians. In Linefork, Lee’s music is situated within the conditions of life and particularities of place. Lee and Opal’s quiet dignity and sincerity emerge as we witness their quotidian experiences, routines, and pastimes: their shared farm work, Opal’s canning and word games, Lee’s playing and teaching, their visits to doctors and trips to the senior center. Implicit are the issues so many face: financial insecurity, access to adequate health care, the difficulties of aging, the ability to remain in one’s home, to care for one’s spouse.
Lee and Opal will likely strike most film audiences as simultaneously foreign and familiar, yet over the course of the film, any sense of otherness gives way to a palpable universality. Linefork is a quiet meditation on the endurance and fragility of a regional American music and the vitality of the human condition with its varied tensions and complexities.
“Look, Listen, and Linger”
“We wanted viewers to have a sensory experience rather than one based on language formed by experts or—worse—written by us. We purposefully avoided narrative to allow the characters and setting to be central. They’re what this is about. Narration and narrative take up a lot of room. Steering clear of those elements allowed us to open the lens onto the subjects themselves.”