By Theresa L. Burris
Residents of Appalachia have encountered prejudice through all types of media, some based on stereotypes of coal mining society. Fortunately, conscientious documentarians have surfaced over the years. They counter negative images of the region and examine the humanitarian struggles that come from the nation’s fossil fuel dependency and its inevitable consequences to Appalachians, their land, and their culture.
Mimi Pickering’s Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001, Appalshop) gives a glimpse into the life of the singer/songwriter powerhouse. Viewers witness the power of song as protest when they hear Dickens croon “Black Lung” a cappella in homage to her brother who died from the dreaded miners’ disease in a state of destitute poverty.
Pickering’s The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975), her first documentary for the nonprofit media arts center Appalshop, offers tragic footage of the 1972 slurry dam failure that killed 125 people. The testimony from victims of the flood is compelling, as is the arrogance of the Pittston coal executive, who unabashedly talks down to Pickering when she interviews him.
Catherine Pancake maintains a similarly unflinching stance in Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice (2006, Bullfrog Films). She looks at coal-mining issues in the twenty-first century, focusing on the destruction that occurs as a result of mountaintop removal and offering a space for the human victims to express their outrage.
In Coal Country (2009, Evening Star Productions) Phylis Geller and Mari-Lynn Evans issue a hard-hitting look into the lives of those living with the devastation of mountaintop removal or residing in the dark shadows of coal-fired power plants.
David Novack’s Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008, Specialty Studios Entertainment) dispels the industry-inspired myth of “clean coal” as he explores the toxic sludge and slurry ponds that result from “cleaning” the coal.
Robert Salyer delves even further into the dangers of coal waste run amok in Sludge (2005, Appalshop), which covers the 2000 Martin County, Ky., coal slurry spill, when 306 million gallons of sludge burst through a storage pit and into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. Salyer captures how coal officials attempted to reassure people of the benign nature of the sludge by saying there was nothing to fear because everything in the sludge could be found on the periodic table.
In 2009, Tom Hansell produced The Electricity Fairy (Appalshop) about the building of Dominion Power’s coal-fired power plant in Southwest Virginia and is currently working on another documentary, After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities, which explores Welsh lessons on community and cultural survival after coal.
Another ongoing documentary project is examining the health tolls of a different fuel. Acceptable Limits, which has been in production since Feb. 2011, examines an aging nuclear plant in Erwin, Tenn., and the community impacted by the plant’s perilous pollution.
As threats to Appalachia evolve, so will the films that show the truth.