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Films, Videos, and DVD’s on West Virginia and Appalachia

By Steve Fesenmaier

Crossings: Bridge Building in West Virginia
56 mins. 2006 WV Dept. of Transportation

West Virginia, the most mountainous state east of the Mississippi, is a land of bridges. Some are famous – like the New River Bridge – others are infamous – like the Silver Bridge. Terry Lively, Creative Services Manager for WVDOT and freelance cartographer [see page __], produced and co-directed this look at 38 different highway bridges across the state. Digital Vision Works of Dunbar shot and directed the film. Bridges shown include all 17 covered bridges in West Virginia, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, New River’s Fayette Station Bridge, East Huntington Bridge, Star City Bridge, and many others. The film highlights these impressive structures while honoring the engineers and workers who designed and built them. Copies of this film will be distributed to every public school and library in West Virginia. For more information, go to www.wvdot.com/crossings/CROSSINGS_index.html.

Ghosts of Green Bottom
28 mins. 2004 Daniel Boyd
In 1825, William Jenkins did the unthinkable. He crossed the rugged Appalachians to establish a Southern-style plantation on the wilderness fringe of Western Virginia, in present-day Cabell County. At its peak in the mid-1800's, the sprawling estate employed around 80 slaves, working 1,700 acres of rich Ohio River bottomland. Being loyal Virginians, the family cast their lot with the Confederacy during the Civil War, triggering a series of fateful events that ended their plantation lifestyle and nearly destroyed their once-proud legacy. Today, the house and property are operated as a historic site by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, known as Jenkins Plantation. In this film, director Daniel Boyd and executive producer Robert Maslowski use traditional research and modern archaeology to reveal the “Ghosts of Green Bottom.” This is the pair’s second award-winning film on West Virginia archaeology. DVD copies are available for $10 each, plus $2.59 shipping, from www.danielboyd.com/big.htm.

King of Stink: Appalachian Ramp Festivals
55 mins. 2004 Golden Lion Media
The arrival of this wild leek is celebrated each spring with festivals and community ramp suppers in the high mountain regions of North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. This film offers a tour of a dozen of these festivals. Through expert commentary and oral accounts from local participants, a full appreciation of this centuries-old tradition of gathering, preparing, and feasting emerges. The story is told with humor and affection, accompanied by traditional and bluegrass music. West Virginia festivals include Helvetia, Richwood, Chloe, and Elkins. DVD or VHS copies are available for $20 each, plus $5 shipping, from Golden Lion Media, P.O. Box 149, Stuarts Draft, VA 24477; phone (540)337-1095 or on-line at www.goldenlionmedia.com.

The Whole Hog: Traditional Butchering in West Virginia
24 mins. 2005 Real Earth Productions
Since frontier times, rural families have butchered their own hogs for food. This practice is still found today in the Lost River Valley area of Hardy County. Late each fall, families and friends get together for this all-day event, which culminates in a delicious country dinner. Filmmakers Judy and Ray Schmitt celebrate this tradition and the people who practice it through an interesting and informative look at rural foodways. Due to the nature of this subject, some of the images might not be suitable for young children. DVD or VHS copies are available for $24.95, plus $3 shipping, from Real Earth Productions, 2701 Crab Run Road, Mathias, WV 26812; phone (304)897-6961 or on-line at www.realearthproductions.com.

The Soul of the Senate: Robert C. Byrd
56 mins. 2005 MotionMasters and the West Virginia Humanities Council
U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., on November 20, 1917, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Following his mother’s death, he was adopted by his mother's sister and her husband, Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They changed the boy’s name to Robert Carlyle Byrd and moved to West Virginia in 1920. The future public figure graduated from high school in Stotesbury, Raleigh County, where he met his wife-to-be, Erma. Byrd soon began a storied political career that would span more than 60 years and see him become the longest-serving U.S. Senator in the nation’s history. Every public library and school in WV has a copy of this film. It is available in VHS and DVD formats, plus an enhanced DVD with bonus footage. For purchase information, write to MotionMasters, One Creative Place, Charleston, WV 25311 or phone (304)345-8800.

The Last Campaign
107 mins. 2005 Wayne Ewing Productions
West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw’s hotly contested – and ultimately unsuccessful – 2004 campaign for reelection is the subject of this unusual political documentary. Marked by scandals, outrageous allegations, and outside financial influence, this election was considered one of the nastiest and most expensive in U.S. history. Interspersing excerpts from his 1972 documentary on McGraw – titled “If Elected” – filmmaker Wayne Ewing creates a unique cinema verite portrait of American politics over a 32-year span. DVD copies are available for $29.95, plus shipping, from www.thelastcampaign.com.

The Kingmaker: Don Blankenship
30 mins. 2005 West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Reporter Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting produced and narrates this look at Don Blankenship, controversial president of Massey Energy, one of the state’s largest and most powerful coal companies. Archival footage documents his early life and career. Supporters and detractors are interviewed, offering contrasting perspectives on this prominent and politically active coal executive. Supporters present positive opinions about his management style and his contributions to southern West Virginia communities, while detractors point to the damage he has allegedly done to the environment and to workers' health. Blankenship told the Charleston press that he considers the report to be balanced. Copies are available for $29.95 from West Virginia Public Broadcasting; phone (304)556-4900.

Black Diamonds
90 mins. 2006 Catherine and Ann Pancake
“Black Diamonds” charts the escalating drama over the increase in mountaintop mining in Appalachia and the controversy surrounding its use. Filmmakers Catherine and Ann Pancake were born and raised in West Virginia – Catherine an award-winning filmmaker and Ann an award-winning author. They worked for more than four years on this project, traveling throughout Appalachia, studying this mining method, and documenting its impact. Citizen testimony and visual documentation are interwoven with commentary from government officials, activists, and scientists to create a riveting portrait of an American region caught between the grinding wheels of the national appetite for “cheap” energy and an enduring sense of Appalachian culture, pride, and natural beauty. For more information, go to www.blackdiamondsmovie.com/index.html or www.bullrogfilms.com.

UFOs in Hardy County
28 mins. 2005 Real Earth Productions
Following the 2002 release of his sci-fi feature, “The Lights,” filmmaker Ray Schmitt began interviewing neighbors and others in the Lost River Valley area of Hardy County, concerning UFO’s and strange phenomena they had seen in the sky. Filmed on location, these stories are intriguing and otherworldly, and beg for a scientific explanation. DVD or VHS copies are available for $24.95, plus $3 shipping, from Real Earth Productions, 2701 Crab Run Road, Mathias, WV 26812; phone (304)897-6961 or on-line at www.realearthproductions.com.

GardenStory: The Garden as Environmental Stewartship
30 mins. 2005 Rubicon Productions
Former Charleston resident Rebecca Frischkorn hosts this ambitious four-part series on gardening, exploring some of the social, environmental, and philosophical implications of large public gardens. The segment on environmental stewartship was filmed in the Upper Shavers Fork Nature Conservancy Preserve in Randolph County in the summer of 2005. It is about volunteers and non-profit organizations working to sustain the preserve, which includes rare and endangered plant and animal species, in an effort called “restoration gardening.” The DVD containing all four GardenStory episodes is available for $12.99, plus shipping, from www.gardenstory.org/default.asp.

He Went About Doing Good
47 mins. 2005 PatchWork Films
The inspiring life of retired Methodist minister Carl W. Renick, Sr., of Lewisburg is the subject of this recent release, directed and co-produced by West Virginia’s 2005 Filmmaker of the Year, B.J. Gudmundsson. The Reverend Renick was born in Lewisburg in 1913 and was among the first graduating class at Greenbrier County’s first black high school. Working summers at The Greenbrier, he saved money to go to college, graduating from Negro North Carolina A&T in 1942. In 1950, he and his wife, Edna, returned to Lewisburg, where Carl worked at The Greenbrier and made the decision to enter the ministry. He was ordained in 1960 and spent the next 21 years pastoring at Methodist churches in West Virginia and Virginia. After nine years at Calloway United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia, Rev. Renick retired and came home to Lewisburg, where he is pastor emeritus at the church of his youth, John Wesley United Methodist Church. Part of the “Modern Marvels of Inspiration” series, VHS copies are available for $15, DVD’s for $18, plus shipping, from PatchWork Films, 106 Lamplighter Drive, Lewisburg, WV 24901; phone (304)645-4998 or on-line at www.patchworkfilms.com.

Standing on Holy Ground
62 mins. 2005 PatchWork Films
Continuing in the “Modern Marvels of Inspiration” series, B.J. Gudmundsson and Joan C. Browning co-produced this film about Methodist minister the Reverend Dr. Patricia A. Jarvis and her husband, Julian George Sulgit, Jr. It follows the pair as they engage in ministry in West Africa, Charleston, Glenville, Bluefield, and Lewisburg. The film is a portrait of a family living a life of faith and a couple with a strong commitment to
social justice. VHS copies are available for $20, DVD’s for $25, plus shipping, from PatchWork Films, 106 Lamplighter Drive, Lewisburg, WV 24901; phone (304)645-4998 or on-line at www.patchworkfilms.com.

A growing number of films are now available that are either produced by youth or are intended for young audiences:

Bringing Down the Mountains
14 mins. 2006 Mountain Sustainability Project
Pennsylvania high school students Kaitlyn Walton, Jill Sompel, and Stephanie Loughner produced this powerful 14-minute documentary to describe what life is like around mountaintop removal mining sites in southern West Virginia. Limited copies are available for outreach and educational use via e-mail through bringingdownthemountains@yahoo.com.

On the River's Edge
85 mins. 2005 self-released
Francesca Karle, a 17-year-old Chesapeake, Ohio, high school student, chose to do her Girl Scout Gold Award project on the homeless. She began filming during September 2004 using a JVC camcorder, following the chronically homeless in the region — people who would rather live on the streets or river's edge than stay in shelters. DVD copies are available for $25 via e-mail from bigfoot1@netacs.net.

Labor in the Mountains
55 mins. 2005 Labor in the Mountains Foundation
In what might be the first labor history for children ever put on film, a grandfather tells his granddaughter about the history of the labor struggles in West Virginia. The film is available in VHS or DVD formats for $5 from Labor in the Mountains Foundation, ILSR/WVU, 719 Knapp Hall, Morgantown WV 26506.

Several classic regional releases are now available in DVD format:

Harlan County, USA
103 mins. 1976(2006 DVD) Criterion
Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary about mining in southern Appalachia, labor strife, and the pivotal role played by women in the struggle. Dave Morris, Hazel Dickens, and other Appalachian musicians provide the music for the film. The new DVD includes out-takes and bonus features and is available from Amazon.com and other sources. The soundtrack CD is also available.

Buffalo Creek – An Act of Man
40 mins. 1975(DVD 2006) Appalshop

Buffalo Creek Revisited
31 mins. 1984(DVD 2006) Appalshop
Appalshop’s unflinching look at the 1972 disaster that left 125 dead and 4,000 homeless in Logan County, along with a follow-up report, ten years after. Both films are now available on a single DVD for $30, plus shipping, from www.buffalocreekflood.org/main.htm.

Dancing Outlaw
60 mins. 1991(DVD 2005) Jacob Young

Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood
30 mins. 1994(DVD 2005) Jacob Young
Jesco White, Boone County’s most famous dancer and Elvis impersonator, is the subject of these controversial documentaries, profiling a talented and troubled artist. The single DVD release includes both the original film and the 1994 follow-up, plus unseen footage. It sells for $29.95, plus shipping, and is available at www.dancingoutlaw.com.