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Pall in the Family

Don Diego Ramirez turns a Devastating Personal Journey Into a Gripping Documentary

TIN MEN: Director Don Diego Ramirez (with editor David Wanger, left) put his family drama/trauma on film for trailer trash.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 9/12/2007

Don Diego Ramirez doesn't look like a threat to middle-class propriety. Nothing about his beefy build or twinkling eyes or even the thorny tribal tattoo sprawling across the soft underside of his upper arm attracts any second glances from the other patrons at the coffeehouse. Only the deliberate, subtly twangy pattern of his speech gives any indication to his membership in one of the most despised and misunderstood populations in this country--the rural-poor residents of the aluminum shantytowns of trailer parks reviled as "trailer trash."

"Most of the time we didn't have heat or running water," Ramirez recalls about his childhood home, a trailer he shared with his grandmother and siblings. "My grandmother would actually take sleeping bags and cover off the back part of the trailer, and we'd have to sleep in the living room area. There were times I'd wake up and there'd be frost on the inside of the trailer's walls. At the end of the film, when we blow up the racetrack, that's to show that that part of my life is gone."

That now-demolished trailer park, located near the Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia, is the starting venue for Ramirez's Trailer Trash: A Film Journal, a documentary that chronicles three tumultuous years in his extended family's already tragic history. Far from the usual tactic of treating the travails of poor white Americans as entertainment for the more couth gentry (think of the endless parade of shirtless good ol' boys tackled and handcuffed on Cops), Ramirez's documentary humanizes its subjects without flinching from the horror of what they perpetrate upon each other.

The movie opens with Super 8 footage of Ramirez's grandmother Mary Francis Patnode. She's reaching the end of her battle with cancer, and over the next year Ramirez unflinchingly records the deterioration of the woman who cared for him and his siblings when his drug-addicted mother was no longer a competent parent. That alone would be enough for a documentary, but fate keeps tumbling out hardships: Ramirez's daughter is born with serious birth defects and is hospitalized twice. And then, in the most sickening revelation of all, his grandfather is murdered by his also addicted sister and her boyfriend, who stow the corpse in the back of their rental truck for two days before dumping it in the woods.

With such atrocities unfolding, how did Ramirez possibly keep his sanity together to finish? "I didn't," he admits. "I'm not going to fucking lie and act like some macho West Virginia guy, because I'm not. Literally, my camera was a shield. It was between me and what was going on, which was some hard stuff. It helped in a therapeutic way to have the film."

Despite its raw and unpolished approach, Trailer Trash isn't the home-video work of a visionary naif. "I've been an exhibiting artist for 20 years and I've dabbled in film," says Ramirez, a graduate of Shepherd University who also studied film at UMBC. "Film is very expensive. When you're working in photography, it's not like you can do both."

To ensure a cohesive structure for this documentary, he enlisted the help of editor David Wanger, a Towson University graduate more familiar with digital editing software Final Cut Pro. Ramirez generously credits Wanger with the success of the finished product, and emphasizes that the trust between them was absolute. "We had connected on the film Grizzly Man," Ramirez says. "I said, `I got ate by the--excuse my French--the fucking bear. I'm fucking gone. You edit this film like I'm gone.' I relinquished everything."

Trailer Trash has earned accolades at several festivals, including Washington, D.C.'s Rosebud Film Festival and New Jersey's Super 8mm Film Festival, as audiences accustomed to gawking at the troubles of poor Americans come away with a deeper understanding of one family's multigenerational legacy of pain. But Ramirez emphasizes that's not the whole story. "There is hope in our family," he says. "And I do try to convey that. . . . The only way you change things is by recognizing, talking about, remembering it.

"I believe that it's important that we look at the ugliness," he continues. "Only by looking at the ugliness or feeling your pain can you find beauty and joy. I loved my grandmother more than words, and I hope very much that the film shows that. It's not just sorrow and pain. In the midst of this poverty, there was this amazing love."

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