Filmmakers with Columbia ties snag top Sundance documentary award

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 | 4:17 p.m. CST; updated 11:15 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Filmmaker Andrew Droz Palermo won the U.S. Grand Jury prize for documentaries for his film "Rich Hill," a documentary based on a small town of the same name 70 miles south of Kansas City. Palermo also had two films featured in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, 'A Teacher' and 'Black Metal.'

COLUMBIA — For a moment, Andrew Droz Palermo wasn't sure if the announcement was true. For a moment, he didn't move.

But it was true. And he did move — up the aisle and onto the stage, along with his cousin Tracy Droz Tragos, to receive a Grand Jury Prize on Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival for "Rich Hill," their documentary based on a small town by the same name in Missouri.

"Rich Hill," filmed by Droz Palermo and Tragos, won the top prize at the festival for American documentaries.

The just over 90-minute documentary follows three teenage boys struggling to come of age in the small, hard-luck town despite difficult backgrounds. Rich Hill, 70 miles south of Kansas City, was once a thriving mining town, but once the coal was gone, stores closed and many families moved away.

"This small town is emblematic of small towns all across the United States, lots of dying small towns," Droz Palermo said in an interview last year. His mother grew up in Rich Hill, as did his cousin's father.

The co-directors are expected to show "Rich Hill" at the True/False Film Fest, which starts Feb. 27 in Columbia. It would be the documentary's Midwestern debut.

(Video: Kickstarter)

Born in Columbia and raised in Jefferson City, Droz Palermo studied graphic design at Columbia College Chicago. Since finishing his degree in 2007, he has shot several music videos, short films and feature films, living in Columbia for much of the time.

Last year, his cinematography played a part in the True/False Film Fest. He shot a portion of the footage for a short film, "Dear Valued Guests."

Tragos has worked for DreamWorks and has produced documentaries for E! Entertainment Television. She also wrote and directed the film, "Be Good, Smile Pretty," and co-wrote the short, "The Last Full Measure." She spent part of her childhood in Columbia.

The Grand Jury Prize at Sundance came after more than two years of work, which included fundraising and filming. In addition to receiving a Sundance Institute Documentary Fund Grant, the filmmakers enlisted 514 backers through Kickstarter to pledge $64,225 toward production. The film also received funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

With the prize under their belts, the two are now turning their attention toward netting a wider audience for the film, finding a distributor and taking the film on the road to show at U.S. and international film festivals.

"It's not over now," Tragos said. "It's like bringing the film into the world; it's a whole other chapter."

Tragos said she hopes the win will mean more visibility for the film to connect with audiences so they can better understand the issues the film addresses.

"We really want to make sure that it gets a wide distribution so that it's accessible," Tragos said.

The co-directors spent 18 months in Rich Hill, following their subjects and conducting interviews with the boys, their families and other residents. After several months of editing, the team put the finishing touches on the film in the weeks leading up to Sundance, where it premiered.

Despite the ups and downs of the filmmaking process, Droz Palermo said the most gratifying part was knowing that his three main subjects liked the film. Each saw the documentary prior to its debut. One asked to watch it again. Another gave it 30 out of four stars.

The two co-directors brought the boys and their families out to Park City, Utah, for Sundance, and Droz Palermo said he plans to stay involved in their lives moving forward.

"We're going to continue our relationship with them after this film festival," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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