"Trailer Trash: A Film Journal" covers three harrowing years in the life of West Virginia artist Don Diego Ramirez. | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

"Trailer Trash: A Film Journal" covers three harrowing years in the life of West Virginia artist Don Diego Ramirez.

"Trailer Trash: A Film Journal" covers three harrowing years in the life of West Virginia artist Don Diego Ramirez.
Snapshot: A still from "Trailer Trash"

On May 11, 2004, Don Diego Ramirez and his wife, Karla, were driving his grandmother home from the doctor's office where she'd just learned she had cancer, and only months to live. The ride was silent, but the artist in Ramirez sought a voice.

"All I had to document that moment," he says, "was a roll of Kodak 40 in my refrigerator." That and a borrowed Super 8 mm home-movie camera.

Ramirez, a veteran art photographer from West Virginia, says he was "floored" by the coincidence that his grandmother was dying even as Karla was pregnant with their first child. He shot that lone roll and then a few more, but trouble only metastisized: His grandmother, who'd raised him, died; the baby was born with health problems; and then his grandfather was found murdered, the suspected killers Ramirez's own sister and her boyfriend, over drug money.

Over the course of three years, with Super 8 film and a digital-video camera -- and amidst as big a media frenzy as you'll see in the eastern West Virginia panhandle -- Ramirez kept documenting it all. His unflinchingly intimate "Trailer Trash: A Film Journal" premieres locally at the Tue., Nov. 13, Film Kitchen. Ramirez will present the 53-minute video along with editor David Wanger and Ben Townsend, who supplied the film's music. The screening, a City Paper-sponsored event and part of the Three Rivers Film Festival, also includes two short videos by Fred Wilder.

"Trailer trash," says Ramirez on the documentary's voiceover narration. "How I hate that term." Ramirez, 41, grew up in a trailer park, the son of an alcoholic, drug-addicted mother and a father he never met. The movie's wrenching sequences document his bouts with insomnia during the ordeals, an interview with a jailed niece, and his grandmother's death. The travails of his subjects -- Ramirez himself, his family members and their friends -- might play into stereotypes of impoverished residents of Appalachia. But "Trailer Trash," as an inside narrative, ultimately humanizes them.

"It was one of the worst times of my life," says Ramirez, who now also works for the state of Virginia as a residential-facility counselor for developmentally disabled people. He adds, "I felt very much that the film was a way of processing and coping with the experiences that were going on."

"Trailer Trash" has played festivals including the 2007 United States Super 8 Film & Digital Video Festival, in New Jersey, where it won Best Documentary. It has also earned an award at Washington, D.C.'s Rosebud Film and Video Festival, and has garnered positive press. A Sept. 12 review in Baltimore City Paper said the documentary "is made with great compassion and honesty."

"We have honestly been shocked at the level of response we have gotten to the film," says Ramirez. "I don't think a lot of people in the city realize what poverty is like in rural America."

Fred Wilder created Fast KARL as an art project -- a little robot ("Kinetic, Artist, Robotic, Lifeform") that could paint without human intervention. But KARL has had his greatest success as a movie star, appearing in a Hollywood, Calif., screening series in Wilder's two super-short videos, "Scream KARL" and "KARL Bites."

Wilder, 45, lives in Fullerton, Calif., where his lungs are recovering from the recent wildfires. Film Kitchen will screen the two videos on Nov. 13. "Scream Karl" finds the artist's robot alter-ego stealing Edvard Munch's famed painting "The Scream." "KARL Bites" casts him as an unsuccessful vampire.

Film Kitchen 8 p.m. Tue., Nov. 13 (7 p.m. reception). Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $4. 412-316-3342, x178, or www.filmkitchenpgh.org