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  • June 6, 2014

Seeing the Unseen Appalachia: Overburden, a Documentary Film

The road to Cumberland, Kentucky is all switchbacks, the asphalt snaking up and down Pine Mountain on the western flank of the lush Appalachian Mountains. My students and I had driven this road many times during the weeks we traveled to the small coal mining town to make photographs, but this time we stopped near the peak. And we watched.

In the valley below us, great machines were moving earth and stone—building more access roads for the coal trucks. To the west we saw a barren bulge in the landscape—once a great mountain, now it was shaved flattop by dynamite. I cautiously made pictures as the sun rose, lighting up the morning fog that was boiling in the valleys.

Picture of Kayford Mountain at night
Only 45 minutes outside of Charleston, West Virginia, Kayford Mountain is the most visited and photographed mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. Mining operations continue around the clock as the largely mechanized process can harvest massive amounts of coal each day.

Since that moment 11 years ago, I have transitioned from photography to documentary filmmaking. As I made those first images and began exploring the hills and hollows of West Virginia, I realized the stories there were complex, perhaps even beyond what can be captured in a 35mm frame. I began recording audio, and video soon followed. Without realizing it, I had begun the journey of making a documentary film. (A short from the project is included at the top of this post.)

Picture of girls playing in the road  in West Virginia
Massey Energy, which was sold to Alpha Natural Resources, has admitted to pumping millions of gallons of coal sludge, the by-product from the cleaning process at a coal preparation plant, into abandoned mines near Rawl, West Virginia. In the next few decades, traces of arsenic, lead, selenium, aluminum, and other dangerous metals began to appear in the drinking water.

Having grown up in Kentucky, I have a relationship with coal that is layered in distrust, resentment and strife. I also know first-hand that for the people who live at the mercy of the coal company, coal is life. It’s this ambivalent knowledge that allows me to see that the story of coal is more complex than most films reveal. It is at the intersection of family, community, economics, and environment that the real story takes shape. And that’s why I have chosen to focus on both sides of this complicated tale—seeking a narrative that unveils the emotional turbulence that many experience in the region.

Picture of graffiti covering an anti-mountaintop removal billboard
Graffiti by community members in the coal-supporting town of Eccles, West Virginia, marks an anti-mountaintop removal advertising campaign.

One of the film’s main characters, Betty Harrah, has been a tenacious pro-coal supporter since she was born. At least that was the case until April 5, 2010 when the Upper Big Branch mining disaster killed her brother and changed everything. After this transformation she decided to join forces with the film’s other protagonist, Lorelei Scarbro, to fight Massey Energy, the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 coal miners. It’s in that moment that the film reveals a more nuanced and sophisticated story, one that allows the viewer into the unseen Appalachia and the real lives of the people of coal country.

Picture of environmental activists working on campaign strategies
Rory McIlmoil, the campaign coordinator for the Coal River Wind Project, works on potential campaign strategies at the volunteer house of Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group located in Whitesville, West Virginia, with Sam McCreery and Jen Osha Buysse, both anti-mountaintop removal activists.
Picture of Rory McIlmoil scouting Coal River Mountain for a protest site
When the coal company, Massey Energy, began the initial phases of mountaintop removal, McIlmoil and other locals and environmentalists responded by starting what became known as the Appalachian Spring, a year in which over 100 people were arrested in many acts of civil disobedience on Coal River Mountain and other neighboring mountaintop removal sites. Here, the Coal River Wind campaign coordinator Rory McIlmoil scouts locations for a protest on the mountain in January 2009.

But it’s complicated. Condensing real life into an hour of video is a frustrating battle. Details get lost, and as a filmmaker, you try to hold on to the details that maintain authenticity and that engage the audience. Over the past seven years I’ve filmed easily over 500 hours of footage. In the end, Overburden will be 57 minutes in length. It’s a process of sculpting and distilling. Naturally, we compress time, guiding the viewer from foothold to foothold on this journey. My goal has always been to maintain reality, to let people know and connect with Lorelei, Betty, and their families, and to inspire empathy for them. The power of this medium is that we can bypass stereotypes and tap into the universal: the birth of Lorelei’s grandson, the senseless loss of a sibling, the hope of a new day.

Picture of a candle light vigil for victims of a mine disaster
Community members gather at Liberty High School in Glen Daniel, West Virginia, on Friday, April 9, 2010 for a candlelight vigil four days after the mine disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine operated by Massey Energy.

Together with an amazing team of filmmakers and editors including: Catherine Orr, Elena Rue (of StoryMineMedia) and Toby Shimin, our goal is to make a film that is about people, not just the environment. We plan to utilize the film to launch a campaign to produce a groundswell of compelling short documentaries celebrating women who are agents of change in their communities. The campaign will create a compilation of stories from around the country that highlight the importance of local community action and the critical role women play in a productive and informed society. We’ll have more information on this as we near the release of Overburden the film in 2015.

To learn more about the film, visit the site. You can also follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. muskat antonopolis
    May 18, 2015

    muskat isn’t my name but I prefer to use it so I do not get heat on some things from the past..none the less I am a son of the mountains..born there on the banks of the big sandy river..grew up in bloody Breathitt….family still there
    but I don’t know em cause I aint been back since I helped bury my
    gpaw is 83..well, that aint totally true
    ..I drove thru there in 2001 or 2 on rt 15…..NEVER do that again with a big ol camper….them coal trucks rule the roads….I DO NOT to this day know how…but by the Grace of God I kept from getting killed on one turn where I met a coal truck with a 20 ton load coming DOWN the mountain when I was going up..he or she must have been part
    mountain goat to climb the side of that hill to keep from ramming me off the road into the holler..i still to this DAY CANT BELIEVE IT…..well,
    Jackson looked old, tired and dirty…
    and when I asked about a family I
    used to know there..u would a thought I was a DEA agent…..would NOT live there again..but, I SURE do miss the family and friends I had there…life goes on and make the best of it while u can….

  2. Bradley Berthold
    April 10, 2015

    Saw your great film at Full Frame today. Inspirational and maddening at the same time. Chatted with you and the two women afterward. I lived in Clarksburg, WV flying as a commercial pilot for some time. I saw the damage. Strip mining was a big issue then, and finally some remediation was mandated. Then came “mountaintop removal,” leading to even more serious devastation. Then the mine explosion killing 26.
    Thanks to the years of hard work of your two heroines and others, something at last is being done.

    Would that efforts here by Rev. Barber and others, as well as people fighting fracking and offshore drilling by the extraction industries would be heeded by our politicians, instead of being arrogantly, disdainfully dismissed.
    I hope they can find a champion like you to document who they are and what they’re about.
    I hadn’t realized you were in the JOMC department at UNC. I got the certificate in “Technology and Communication” a couple of years ago, and was impressed with the quality. Your documentary adds to the admiration.
    It’s heartening to see achievements like these emanating from UNC despite the machinations of our state politicians and the blindered fanaticism of all too many sports afficianados.
    Thanks for your splendid efforts!

  3. Lon
    April 9, 2015

    Coal is dying. I am afraid they are going to take WV with it.

  4. Tom Tuey
    December 28, 2014

    I was born in Ky. and lived there till my family moved to
    Va. in the 50’s..my folks have always been there.
    Many still are…my grandad
    had been shot up in a raid on
    a still…my dad told me of the
    railroads …one flat car for the trunk of one tree..huge..
    they were the first to destroy
    the area….then the coal mines just about did things in till they started the restoration ….they only did
    a half assed job at that…
    u can’t put it back like it was..never..I remember the folks coming into town on ration days to get their free
    food….came in on in wagons
    and trucks, on horse or mule
    back ….cheese, dehydrated
    taters, eggs, milk….I remember the fueds …. saw
    men shot up ….. the creeks
    were full of trash thrown out
    the back door….couldn’t
    seine for minnows in the
    creeks, get your feet cut up..
    broken glass….bare foot til
    it got cold…..squirrels fried,
    with gravy over cornbread..
    good as it gets….lots more
    upstairs but I am getting old
    and it Was a long time ago..

  5. Judith Ann Mazur
    August 12, 2014

    Thank you so much for this article. I was born and raised in Pikeville Ky.and I always so, You can take the Girl out of the Hills but you can not take the Hills out of the Girl, SOOO true for me…just loved this page, thank you for the memories…

  6. Debbie
    July 6, 2014

    I love the spirit of the Appalachian people. The greatest irony is that they typically have great reverence for the
    earth. This is going to be such a compelling story and I can’t wait to see it.

  7. AkhenTep
    June 24, 2014

    …great activism for saving the mountain-tops!…

  8. Daniel Adkins
    June 14, 2014

    This made me cry, thanks for confirming my conviction that the earth must be protected. I remember seeing this devastation on a flight from from St. Louis, Mo to Charlotte, North Carolina when flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  9. Tim
    June 8, 2014

    Strength to those who fight for an earth worth inheriting.

  10. suresh
    June 8, 2014

    thank you so much

  11. Deborah Deatherage
    June 7, 2014

    Thank you so much for this. You just don’t know how much it means to me.

  12. carol judy
    June 7, 2014

    calling out mountains land, overburden, as if it was not earth… so glad you chose the title.. and yes we have lived here generations. we need the mountains whole and healthy, means people will have a chance at being whole and healthy as well. the waters all go down-stream, flowing all the poisons into your public water utility as well as into the waters in our communities . thank you for this.. i live the other side of cumberland gap , ky, in tn… water/animals/plants do not recognize state,county lines.. even as we understand that as unincorporated communities of place, we need each other, more than we need corporations which take the lives of our children/grand-children and great-grands.. it is a matrix of perspectives and thank you for this.

  13. Leonard Cruz
    June 6, 2014

    Hooray for the citizens standing up to Massey Energy and other companies whose short-sightedness is ruinous for everyone.

  14. tikku
    June 6, 2014

    I can but say that this proof,( I do not know much about) , I find amazing and beautiful means of effective expression and telling people the truth about this earth and contributing to the humanity.

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