A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


Grassroots Filmmaking in Appalachia

By Tom Hansell

Amazing documentaries come from the Appalachian region. From the Academy Award-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. to the recent premiere of The Last Mountain at the Sundance Film Festival, these mountains are full of compelling stories that have attracted documentary filmmakers from across the world.

A great source of homegrown documentaries from the Appalachian region is the Appalshop Media Arts Center in Whitesburg, Ky., where I have worked since 1990. Appalshop’s work provides an interesting model of how the arts can help create sustainable mountain communities.

I was drawn to documentary filmmaking because of my desire to make films that create a better future. My most recent project is titled After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities.

This documentary will examine how Welsh coal mining communities adapted after the nation’s mines were closed, and explore how Appalachian mining communities can learn from the Welsh experience to create a healthy economy.

In the planning phase of a project, there two simple ideas I use to maximize the impact of my work:“

1. Clearly state vision and goals

Although documentary is a visual medium, writing down a plan will help achieve that vision. It is important to clearly state what the project is about and where it will be seen when approaching people to interview or act as guides to locations. A short written description is a valuable tool that will help in finding funding and distributors for the project.

2. Create partnerships

Connecting with groups and organizations that have a stake in the people and issues of the project helps with fundraising and assists with distribution of the documentary.

Partners may be groups like the 13 members of The Alliance For Appalachia, local collectives like the Birdhouse in Knoxville, Tenn., or educational institutions such as local community colleges, schools, or universities.

Above all, I’ve realized that being true to the vision for the project and cultivating patience and perseverance helps create a better future for Appalachia and the world.

Learn more about the grassroots films of Appalachia at appalshop.org.

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