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Remembering Filmmaker Bob Gates

By Steve Fesenmaier

Bob Gates (1944-2013). Photograph by Steve Fesenmaier.

Pioneer West Virginia filmmaker Bob Gates died on Saturday, February 2, 2013. Ironically, it was Groundhog Day, one of Bob’s favorite holidays. A graduate of the University of Delaware, Bob worked as a computer and chemical engineer until 1971, when he was laid off and began his career as an independent filmmaker.

He was instrumental in the formation of the West Virginia Filmmakers Guild in 1979 and served as president of that group for several decades. He was also a member of the Ohio Valley Media Arts Coalition, another film-related organization that was founded in 1980.

Bob was active in the environmental community. For many years he served on the board of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and also worked extensively with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). His awareness of the importance of protecting the environment is shown in his films.

His first major film was In Memory of the Land and People (1977), one of the few films created in West Virginia that took a stand against the practice of strip mining. This ground-breaking film was shown to members of Congress and was viewed nationwide, highlighting the fact that strip mining is not just a West Virginia issue, but a controversial practice wherever there is coal to be mined. The film won several awards and helped Bob Gates to establish a strong reputation as a documentary filmmaker. It is still available on DVD.

Gates also made two films about the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. All Shaken Up (1998) made with Penny Loeb, a reporter with US News & World Report; and Mucked: Manmade Disasters and Flash Floods in the Coalfields (2003). These films were widely screened both within and beyond coal mining areas.

A film with a local connection is Building a Cello with Harold (1996). Harold Hayslett, of South Charleston, is a retired pipefitter and a master builder of stringed instruments such as cellos, violins, violas, and double basses, as well as bows. The film follows in detail the building of a cello from finding the perfect wood through the laborious process of making the instrument.

Other films directed by Bob included some experimental films, such as Communication from Weber (1981), which won many awards and toured England; Summer Smiles (1987); Electromotive Force (1993); and Slate Roof, 4227 Frames (1979). Eulogy for 12 Tall Stacks (1979) recorded the destruction of the smokestacks at the former Libbey-Owens glass plant in Charleston. It was an existential film using classical music to underscore the sense of loss.

Bob was among the first observers on the scene at Buffalo Creek, Logan County, on February 26, 1972, when a makeshift dam gave way, resulting in a deadly flood. The raw footage Bob took of the Buffalo Creek disaster was released as a DVD in 2009. The footage has been used in many other films, including Appalshop’s Buffalo Creek – An Act of Man.

Bob’s best-selling film was the musical documentary Morris Brothers Old-Time Music Festival (1972). It documents the Appalachian folk music that was on display at an annual festival created by the Morris Brothers each summer in Clay County. [See “Ivydale: The Morris Family Old-Time Music Festivals,” by Bob Heyer; Summer 1998.]

Gates was also a well-known, award-winning photographer and lighting designer for local plays and operas. Filmmaker Daniel Boyd tapped Bob's expertise as the lighting designer on one of Boyd's early feature films, Invasion of the Space Preachers. Bob also worked on Boyd’s first feature film, Chillers.

Bob Gates won the 2012 West Virginia Filmmaker of the Year Award, sponsored by the West Virginia Filmmakers Guild and the West Virginia Film Festival in Sutton. He was the first person to receive the lifetime achievement award from the West Virginia International Film Festival, which he received in 1984. Many of his films have won awards at the Athens International Film Festival and others nationwide.

On January 9, 2010, the La Belle Theater in South Charleston honored Bob's filmmaking career with an "Evening with Robert Gates," where Bob premiered his latest film, Celebrating 40 Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, as well as a new edition of the Morris Brothers documentary.

On February 26, 2013, friends, family, and colleagues of Bob Gates met to honor him and his memory at the Empty Glass in Charleston. Several of his films were shown, eulogies delivered, and music was played. It was a sad and joyful goodbye to a dear friend and a talented man.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.