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Films about West Virginia and Appalachia

By Steve Fesenmaier

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A Moving Monument: The West Virginia State Capitol
2008 55 min. MotionMasters

The West Virginia State Capitol literally floated down the Ohio River from Wheeling to Charleston, moving back and forth several times, before finally establishing itself at its current location on the shores of the Great Kanawha River in Charleston. Diana Sole, producer and director of several West Virginia historical documentaries, including films about the Reverend Leon Sullivan, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, created this film to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the building that was designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1932.
Access: All public libraries in the state have a DVD copy.

The Road to Opportunity: 50th Anniversary of the West Virginia Turnpike
2004 45 min. WV Dept. of Transportation

The West Virginia Turnpike is a busy four lane toll highway, 88 miles in length, between Princeton and Charleston. Once derided as a "road to nowhere," it has become a model for highway construction around the country and the world, completing the link between the Great Lakes and Florida. Vintage documentary footage of the construction and 1954 opening celebration of the turnpike are mixed with contemporary interviews with state leaders, including U.S. Senators Byrd and Rockefeller, and several West Virginia governors, including Okie Patterson, who was instrumental in starting the project despite vast obstacles. Classic automobile commercials from the 1950's add some context of the importance of this highway before the Interstate system began. The film was produced by the West Virginia Department of Transportation in association with the West Virginia Parkways, Economic Development & Tourism Authority.
Access: All public libraries in the state have a DVD copy. Phone (304)558-9231.

Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice
2008 120 min. Marshall University Libraries

As a U.S. Congressman, West Virginia Secretary of State, university professor, author, and environmental activist, Ken Hechler changed the face of West Virginia and national politics. [See “The Lonely Battle: Ken Hechler’s 1958 Campaign,” by Gordon Simmons; Fall 2007.] West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Russ Barbour and Chip Hancock worked for several years, along with dean of Marshall University libraries Barbara Winters, to produce the first comprehensive documentary about one of the Mountain State's most influential citizens. Interviews with colleagues, including George McGovern and Robert Dole, show Hechler’s devotion to helping the common citizens of the state and country.
Access: All public libraries in the state have a DVD copy, or e-mail wintersb@marshall.edu.

Hillbilly: The Real Story
2007 120 min. Moore Huntley Productions

This controversial documentary aired last year on the History Channel, renamed from its original title, Appalachia: America’s First Frontier, and with country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus added as narrator. Beyond its inflammatory new title and stereotypical characterizations of moonshiners, snake handlers, and gun-toting feudists, lie some interesting historical insights. The two-hour film sheds new light on Revolutionary War battles, railroads, mining, unionization, and dam building in the mountains. The film has been criticized for what some see as its lack of depth and diversity, but praised by others for taking this subject matter to a large national audience.
Access: http://store.aetv.com/html/product/index.jhtml?id=115530

Fiddlin' Wayne Strawderman
2005 28 min. Real Earth Productions

Wayne Strawderman of Hardy County has been entertaining folks with his fiddle and mandolin playing for more than 50 years. This film tells about his early life growing up in Mathias, the musical influences in his life, and the "good-home fellowship" that characterizes him and his music. The film contains archival photographs, excerpts of Wayne playing fiddle tunes at the Lost River Museum and with his popular band the Trout Pond Pickers, and commentary from his good friend and band mate Ralph Hill.
Access: http://realearthproductions.com/

Icy Mountain: The Quirky Fiddling of Leland Hall
2007 36 min. Augusta Heritage Center

Braxton County fiddler Leland Hall (1915-2003) might be an obscure player to some fans of old-time music, but his unique style and personality place him squarely in the middle of the Central West Virginia fiddling tradition. As the subtitle of this film suggests, Leland’s music is a bit quirky, which accounts for a lot of its appeal. This documentary was filmed on location in 1995 and in 2000. It takes viewers inside Leland’s home and introduces them to this soft-spoken man and his unusual style of solo fiddling. The DVD bonus features include 10 of Leland’s tunes, played at normal speed and digitally slowed down – at standard pitch – for clarity or learning purposes. This fine film is another feather in the cap of folklorist and award-winning filmmaker Gerald Milnes.
Access: www.augustaheritage.com/store.html.

Experience Fenton
28 min. Fenton Art Glass

Established in 1905, the Fenton Art Glass Company has been producing beautiful and collectible glass from its factory in Williamstown, Wood County, for more than 100 years. [See “Fenton: A Century of Art Glass in Williamstown,” by Dean Six; Summer 2008.] This promotional film traces the company’s history and shows how many of its most popular products are made. It emphasizes the relationship between the Fenton management – still under family control – and the glass workers who produce the products.
Access: www.fentonartglass.com/shop/item.asp?item=FG142

Monongah Remembered
2008 30 min. Peter Argentine Productions

The Monongah mine disaster took place in the small Harrison County town outside Fairmont on December 6, 1907. Officials placed the number of fatalities at 361, though later estimates were quite a bit higher, making Monongah the most deadly mining disaster in U.S. history. [See “No Christmas in Monongah: December 6, 1907,” by Eugene Wolfe; Winter 1999.] Most of the victims were immigrant workers, many from Italy, who left farms and families to pursue the American dream, only to wind up casualties of the industrial revolution they helped to fuel. Pittsburgh filmmaker Peter Argentine connects the impact of the Monongah disaster with its eventual ramifications for governmental safety regulations. Using compelling personal accounts, provocative archival photographs, impassioned interviews, and meticulous research, this film weaves a tale of immigration, catastrophe, and consequences, particularly relevant in light of recent mining disasters.
Access: www.monongahmovie.com

Burning the Future: Coal in America
2008 89 min. American Coal Productions

In the wake of the coal mining tragedies of 2006 and 2007 in West Virginia and Utah, many Americans ask why we still mine coal. The reason is startling: Each time a switch is flipped, we burn coal. According to estimates, 52% of America’s electricity comes from coal, but at a shocking cost to the environment and local communities. This new film from American Coal Productions soberly illustrates the suffering of the residents of West Virginia who struggle to preserve their mountains, their culture, and their lives in the face of the omnipotent King Coal. Promoting energy conservation and the development of alternative energy sources, the filmmakers encourage consumers and suppliers to take an honest look at America’s energy consumption and embrace change.
Access: www.burningthefuture.org

Rise Up! West Virginia
2008 75 min. Patchwork Films

Award-winning filmmaker B.J. Gudmundsson goes on a personal journey from her birthplace in Pocahontas County to the southern coalfields, where she joins the Mountain Keepers, who have been fighting a 20-year battle against mountaintop removal coal mining. Interviews include Maria Gunnoe of Bob White, Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain, Julian Martin and Robert Gates of Charleston, and George Daugherty of Elkview, with music from Agust Gudmundsson, T. Paige Dalporto, Jim Savarino, Buddy Griffin, and others.
Access: www.patchworkfilms.com

A Flaming Rock: Coal!
2007 61 min. Cadiz/Hicks Productions

This pro-coal film, made by Enoch Hicks and Ellery E. Cadiz, looks at the geology and history of coal, and traces mining methods from the earliest hand-loading efforts to today’s mechanized techniques. It pays tribute to the dedicated men and women who mine coal and describes their living and working conditions through the years. In addition to its 15 chapters of primary content, the DVD contains bonus features, including a history of mine safety, a history of mining machinery, a simulated mine explosion, and a virtual tour of the McDowell County town of War, home to filmmaker Enoch Hicks, which is depicted as a typical mining community.
Access: www.aflamingrock.com or phone (937)258 2306.

Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America
2007 23 min. Mother Jones Museum

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a rabble-rouser and union organizer like no other. She is remembered across the Mountain State for her vigorous and flamboyant efforts to promote organized labor in the coalfields between 1900 and her death in 1930. Filmmakers Rosemary Feurer and Laura Vazquez, two professors at Northern Illinois University, directed this first complete film about the life of the legendary agitator. The 23-minute documentary includes the only known film footage of her, speaking on her "100th” birthday. Though some might question the accuracy of her precise age on this occasion shortly before her death, few contest her tenacity or dedication to “her boys” in the labor force during the turbulent early years of the movement. The film won first place in the Documentary division at the Geneva Cultural Arts Commission Film Festival.
Access: http://motherjonesmuseum.org.

Widen Film Project
2008 55 min. Killer Productions

Many people in Clay County recall life in Widen, the famous company town built by J.G. Bradley, who was a national and state coal mining leader and who personally ran the town. In 2006, Charleston filmmaker Kelley Thompson interviewed area residents, labor leaders, and historians about the now-defunct town, its historic 1952 labor strike, the Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad, and local sports. [See “Coach Bobby Stover: The Making of a Clay County Legend,” by Kara Perdue Stover; Fall 2007.] This production was funded by the Central Appalachia Empowerment Zone.
Access: E-mail killer64@suddenlink.net or phone (304)344 1990.

The Last Ghost of War
2008 57 min. Gardner Documentary Group

This film is about the long term effects of Agent Orange on the people of Nitro who produced the chemical, the American and Vietnamese soldiers who had direct contact with it, and the civilian population of Vietnam who continue to have long term exposure. Many are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against 32 U.S. chemical companies. Attorneys, activists, scientists, and military experts present the latest information on the on going disaster, continuing 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War. Greg Harpold, a South Charleston filmmaker, filmed local scenes and people.
Access: www.gardnerdocgroup.com

Back to the Bottle
2008 25 min. Laughing Cat Films

West Virginia filmmaker Francesca Karle made national news with her first film about the homeless in Huntington, titled On the River's Edge, made during high school as a Girl Scout project. [See “Films, Videos, and DVD’s on West Virginia and Appalachia,” by Steve Fesenmaier; Fall 2006.] Now a sophomore at Marshall University, she has returned to the streets of Huntington to make a film about alcoholism. One of the street people Karle portrayed in River’s Edge tells his own story of how he became addicted to alcohol. Several local experts on the disease are interviewed, and Hollywood actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Clint Howard also appear.
Access: karle2@marshall.edu.

Trailer Trash: A Film Journal
2007 53 min. Don Diego Ramirez

West Virginia native Don Diego Ramirez was raised near the race track in Charles Town, Jefferson County. This autobiographical tale talks about his life in a trailer home without electricity or running water, and how he overcame his upbringing by studying art at Shepherd University. The filmmaker has captured the raw emotions of his family in this disturbing and compelling true-life tale, narrated by Ramirez. Home-movie footage is woven together with candid digital interviews to create an extraordinary personal statement about poverty, prejudice, and the harsh reality of drug addiction in rural America.
Access: www.trailertrashafilmjournal.com.