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2010 Films on West Virginia and Appalachia

By Steve Fesenmaier

Bridging History at Blennerhassett Island
2007 - 30 mins. - WV Dept. of Transportation
This film documentary, written and directed by David Marcum, tells the history of Blennerhassett Island and the Parkersburg/Marietta region, and shows the great lengths to which West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) engineers, designers, and construction crews went in order to respect the integrity of the historical landmark while observing maritime restrictions to build the new Blennerhassett Island Bridge. The film was selected by the National Transportation Public Affairs Workshop (NTPAW) as the Best Transportation Film of 2009. This win for Bridging History marks the first time West Virginia has won this national award in any category.
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A Golden-Era Dream Rides Into the 20th Century
2007 - 10 mins. - Tri-State Transit Authority
David Marcum of the WVDOT directed this short history of trolley cars in Huntington. Public transit has been providing transportation in this river city for more than 100 years. While Huntington was the first city east of the Mississippi to switch from trolley cars to buses, people missed the old trolleys. So the city purchased open-air buses that looked like trolleys, but they became uncomfortable in the hot summer months. Recently, the city has purchased buses that look like the old-fashioned trolleys but are standard buses on the inside. One interesting sidelight to this story is the founding of Camden Park, one of the country's last remaining destination parks. Established in 1903, the park was designed in part to increase the use of local trolleys.
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The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
1936 (2009 on DVD) - 102 mins. - Universal Studio
In 1936, Hollywood used the California hills to represent the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachian Virginia to create its first Technicolor outdoor film. Based on the popular 1908 book of the same name by John Fox, Jr., the film became a classic retelling of the Hatfield and McCoy feud, with coal mining and romance thrown in. Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, and Sylvia Sidney star, along with child actor George "Spanky" McFarland, who became an early TV star with the Our Gang series. Fonda plays a young man who asks his step-sister, played by Sidney, to marry him. She in turn falls in love with the stranger, played by MacMurray, who has come to bring the railroads and coal mining to the isolated hollow. Set against an ancient feud, the mining company is bringing "civilization" to the remote area. Stereotypes about Appalachia that have existed since the 19th century are given their full expression in this iconic film. The popular bluegrass band The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers reportedly took their name from the title of this film when it was first released in the late 1930's. [See "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers," by Bill Archer; Summer 2010.]

Welcome to Coalwood
2009 - 65 mins. - See to Sea Productions
When Steve Date, a teacher from Minneapolis, Minnesota, visited the October Sky Festival in Coalwood, McDowell County, in 2005, he found the town to be more interesting than just the hometown of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys. Hickam's memoir, Rocket Boys, and the movie based on it, October Sky, had brought Steve and a group of teachers to this small, company-owned mining town, but it was the residents of the town living there today who intrigued and captivated him. [See "Historic Coalwood," by Stuart McGehee; Summer 2001.] Date decided to make a documentary film about Coalwood, telling its story - past, present, and future - through the voices of those who have lived there. Music by Alan "Cathead" Johnston from nearby Premier, photos, and home movies contributed by other former residents capture the history of the area, convey the spirit of the October Sky Festival, and illustrate some of frustrating current issues facing this special town.

The Electricity Fairy
2009 - 50 mins. - Appalshop
Tom Hansell's new film is about Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as exporters of both coal and electricity. Exploitation of natural resources for power generation makes the impact of the nation's electricity consumption highly visible in these four states. From the director of Coal Bucket Outlaw, a powerful 2002 film about overweight coal trucks in eastern Kentucky, this latest release focuses on the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County, Virginia. The film combines present-day documentary footage with old educational films to reveal the hidden costs of America's major source of electricity.

Deep Down
2010 - 57 mins. - Deep Down Productions
The citizens of Floyd County, Kentucky, challenge a mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mine, and win! This is possibly the only film to date that shows such a positive result after citizens and environmental groups band together to stop MTR in their backyards. Beverly May, a healthcare professional and a fourth-generation resident living near the town of Maytown, leads the effort. Her friend and neighbor Terry Ratliff is tempted to play ball with the coal company but eventually joins May and the opposition. This film focuses on the pair as they successfully navigate the murky and turbulent waters of environmental policy and mining regulation. Recently premiered on Kentucky Educational Television, Deep Down is receiving strong national reviews.

2010 - 72 mins. - New Day Films
Lucas Chaffin of Dante, Virginia, is a proud fourth-generation coal miner, trying to live up to the legacy and legend of his dad and what he believes is a family duty. But his father, Luther, still known in the mines as "Bonecrusher," is withered and sick at just 61. He has given his life to the dust and the coal and wants his son to get out of the mines before it is too late. This documentary is an intimate account of the love between a father and son and a moving portrait of a tough community and an even tougher way of life.

S300609 vs. Kanawha State Forest
2009 - 17 mins. - Kanawha State Forest Foundation
This short video "primer," produced by West Virginia filmmaker Mike Youngren, was assembled to alert the public that Keystone Industries has applied for a permit to clear away the trees, rip the top off nearby mountains, take away the coal, and dump overburden into valleys adjacent to Kanawha State Forest, a popular wooded area located just outside of Charleston. The permit application (S300609) predicts Keystone will take five years to complete removal of coal from 600 acres of property that abuts the forest's eastern border. Three big mountaintop removal mines already surround the bottom half of the forest. Naturalists, historians, lawyers, and friends of the forest come forward in the video to describe the profound environmental distress they anticipate if the permit is granted.

Mountaintop Removal Road Show
2009 - 65 mins. - Mountaintop Removal Road Show
An educational and public outreach effort by key players in the MTR cause, the Mountaintop Removal Roadshow offers free programs to schools and community groups, as well as on-line resources. Included in their presentations are any of several films on the topic. Here are a few they recommend:

1. The Hidden Destruction of the Appalachian Mountains is an overview of the mountaintop removal issue. (20:00)
2. Retired underground coal miner Jim Foster talks about the mountaintop removal mine near his home in Boone County (an excerpt from the film Rise up! West Virginia, courtesy of B.J. Gudmundsson at Patchwork Films) (9:36)
3. A Harlan County Fish Pond - Elmer Lloyd's Story is the heartbreaking story of Elmer Lloyd, a retired coal miner whose prized fish pond was destroyed after a coal company started mining above his home in Kentucky. (6:14)
4. McRoberts, Kentucky: Residents Speak Out About TECO looks at the blasting and flooding problems caused by mining above a small eastern Kentucky community. (9:57)
5. Mountaintop Removal in Kentucky is a short montage of amazing MTR images. (2:45)
6. The Martin County Coal Slurry Disaster looks at the October 2000 Massey coal slurry disaster at Inez, Kentucky, that was 25 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. This film features photos taken by me and University of Kentucky student Suzanne Webb. (2:28)
7. Mountain Justice is a music video about young people fighting MTR. (4:08)
8. Wake Up, Freak Out is a powerful, short animated film made in Britain by Leo Murray. This piece pulls no punches about the serious issue of global warming and the possible consequences we will face if we don't act now to stop it. It focuses on the "tipping points" of global warming and ends with a compelling call to action. Highly recommended. (11:35)

NOVA ScienceNOW - Lonnie Thompson
2009 - 20 mins. - NOVA ScienceNOW
Dr. Lonnie Thompson is considered one of the greatest scientists in the world of climatology. He has been searching the world's glaciers for evidence showing trends in global warming and other climate phenomena. A native of Huntington, Thompson was raised on a farm outside Gassaway, Braxton County. This biographical film explores his roots as a young scientist in West Virginia and shows how he has spent much of his life living at an altitude of over 18,000 feet : more than any human ever. Thompson was chosen as a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine in 2008.

Toxic Soup
2010 - 88 mins. - Man Bites Dog Films LLC
In the spirit of filmmaker Michael Moore, Rory Owen Delaney goes on a cross-country tour to explore the effects of industrial chemicals on the lives of contemporary Americans. Focusing largely on West Virginia, the director explores the recent MIC near-disaster in Institute. He also looks at how dangerous many chemicals are to the human body, some suspected of causing autism and other health problems. He visits the Belle DuPont plant and interviews survivors of the 2009 Bhopal, India, spill. The film also looks at the effects of C8 on the people of Parkersburg, who have known about its effects for decades. Executive producer Kyle Stratton Crace grew up in West Virginia, and there is a brief interview with West Virginia native filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.

Shades of Gray
2008 - 60 mins. - Allegheny Image Factory
Clarksburg native and freelance writer Gray Barker was a key figure during the 1950's and '60's in the public fascination with flying saucers and the "unexplained." Beginning with the famous 1952 Flatwoods Monster, Barker fanned the flames of fear and curiosity with books such as They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers; magazines such as Flying Saucer News, The Saucerian, and Saucerian Bulletin; articles; newsletters; and pamphlets. [See "Gray Barker: West Virginia Ufologist," by Matthew Mullins; Fall 2002.] This film peels back the layers off one of the great American hoaxers of the late 20th century. Part Fox Mulder, part Mark Twain, Barker almost single-handedly created or perpetuated much of what is now taken as the "gospel" of UFO's. But Barker's twisting of the truth didn't stop there. In some ways, his entire life was as much myth as anything he ever wrote. This intriguing documentary is directed by Bob Wilkinson and produced by Robert Tinnell, Jeff Tinnell, and John Michaels.

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