Kansas-Raised Filmmaker Emily Railsback Aims for a Nuanced View of Rural American in “Love & Fear in a Small Town”
If you’re from rural America it can be easy to lose yourself in the city.
But when rural Kansas-raised filmmaker Emily Railsback came to Kansas City, she found something.
Earlier this year, Railsback released “Our Blood is Wine,” a documentary about ancient wine-making in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “The New York Times” called the film “thoroughly charming”; “Film Journal” wrote that the film has “some deeper lessons to teach along with its full-bodied entertainment and spectacular locations.”
She’s currently finishing up another wine documentary called “Made in Japan,” scheduled for release in 2020.
Next up is “Love & Fear in a Small Town,” a scripted film about a pacifist Christian woman in a rural community conflicted about her conservative politician husband’s hard-right swing on gun control issues during his reelection campaign. Railsback is currently working on the script, with some shooting planned to begin next year.
Railsback said she wants the film to show urban audiences a more nuanced view of rural Americans, something other than gun-gripping hillbillies in red MAGA trucker caps.
“Love & Fear” is loosely based on situations in her former home area in central Kansas. Born in California, Railsback moved with her family to Sterling, Kansas, when she was 8. A couple of years later, they moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, home to a large community of Mennonites.
“Even in a small town like that you have the Christians who are very Republican Christians, and then you have the Christians who are very pacifist and very anti-war and don’t believe in saluting the flag at all,” she said. “Even within small communities there is so much difference and uniqueness that it’s easy for people in the city to just kind of stereotype.”
Railsback, who now lives in Chicago, graduated as a graphic design and international studies major from Tabor College in Hillsboro, then moved to Kansas City for a time. While here, she shot photos and painted. She worked at The Brick on McGee Street. She immersed herself in the local culture. Kansas City is where she decided to become a filmmaker.
“I love Kansas City — I hope that sometime I can go back there,” she said. “What I fell in love with was how collaborative it is among different art forms. Being able to see jazz musicians connect with fashion designers. You meet people in different areas of art that all connect.”
Her life in Chicago, however, is quite different. It’s easier to exist in a bubble in a bigger city. She’s pretty much embedded in a film community populated by people her own age. She’s surprised how much she misses seeing children and older people. She doesn’t often go to jazz shows anymore — only when friends from out of town want to see the renowned Green Mill Jazz Club.
It’s a microcosm of how the world at large has divided itself, with social media platforms urbanizing and separating community perspectives rather than bringing them together.
“You can say whatever you want online and you don’t have to look people in the eye to say it,” Railsback said. “In smaller communities, you can’t just ostracize your neighbor if you disagree because you have to see them every day. In a city, you just don’t make friendships with people who don’t believe like you. You have to do that in a small town because you know everyone.”
Small Town Truths
Actress Kristen Bush, Railsback’s collaborator on “Love & Fear,” grew up in Sterling, Kansas, and graduated from the University of Kansas. She has gone on to be featured in episodes of the TV series “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order:
Special Victims Unit,” “Medium,” “The Affair,” “Elementary” and HBO’s “Paterno” biopic.
The more time she spends away from Kansas, the more she misses it.
“I’m going to butcher the quote,” Bush said, “but the playwright William Inge wrote something like, ‘It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I became a Kansan.’ And I completely feel the same way. I was so ready to get out into the world. Then once I was out I really, really appreciated (my Kansas roots). And I feel like we need to represent the women in these small towns who don’t really get their stories told.”
Bush said she and Railsback want to show the rural Kansas that they know, not the one that’s poorly represented in film and television.
“There’s not a lot of stuff about the plains,” Bush said. “There’s a generalization about the Midwest, but people’s stories from Overland Park and Des Moines are very different from the one-stoplight towns in the middle of the plains. On the coasts you get very didactic representations. I think we’re both wanting to show the gray of our hometowns.”
Bush and Railsback are especially interested in telling the story of the women they knew growing up.
For Railsback, it was the 2016 election that helped open her eyes about the divisions in our country. Her city friends — nary a Trump voter among them — have no patience for the gradations between charitable and devout Christians and opportunistic conservative politicians. Her rural friends aren’t without their opinions, either. If she posts something on Facebook that’s even sort of liberal, they’ll let her know about it.
“I’ve had some of my friends’ parents say, ‘We’re meant to just support whomever our president is and respect them’,” she said. “That’s kind of crazy to me. These are, like, church moms that I know from when I was younger and they’re supporting Trump and everything he stands for. It’s different from what I would imagine that they would be into.”
And in this age of #MeToo, Bush said the untold stories of rural wives are incredibly interesting to her.
“When Emily and I were growing up, women did all the work in the kitchen, in the church,” she said. “You look back on growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, no one would have said there was an imbalance, but there was. It wasn’t overt. What are the daily, minor heartbreaks that you don’t see behind closed doors? That, to me is fascinating.”
Shay Estes, the Kansas City-based jazz singer, met Railsback when they worked together at The Brick.
“I couldn’t even believe she was a real person,” Estes said. “She came from this really amazing, charitable, giving, pacifist background, and she had the most amazing energy. She baked. She taught yoga. She was just good at everything she tried.”
When “Our Blood is Wine” opened in theaters, Railsback came back to KC for a local showing. It attracted a who’s who of the city’s culinary and wine community. Estes said she couldn’t objectively talk about Railsback’s art because of their ongoing friendship, but the night of that screening she had something of a moment.
“Emily didn’t really know anybody when she came to Kansas City, but she won the hearts of so many people by being just a good, kind person,” Estes said. “Then to see so many people show up at the screening and want to meet her and talk to her because she made a film about wine. It was really a neat feeling personally.”
Railsback understands that a film about Kansas life and the nuances of Christianity and conservatism might be a tough sell, but it’s a story she wants to tell.
“I guess I’m interested in showing the complexity within religion,” she said. “There will be critiques of religious hypocrisy, of course. But there are loving communities that will give the shirts off their backs for someone else. People aren’t as simple as you might think.”