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2009 Films on West Virginia and Appalachia

By Steve Fesenmaier

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West Virginia: A Film History
2009 (1995) 6½ hours WNPB-TV/West Virginia Humanities Council
On June 20, 2009, the West Virginia Humanities Council released the DVD version of this monumental film series, originally aired over West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 1995. Directed, written, and co-produced by Mark Samels, executive producer of the poplar PBS series The American Experience, this four-part documentary chronicles the development of the Mountain State from the presence of the first inhabitants to modern times. Using paintings, still photographs, and motion picture clips, the series follows the contributions of the men and women who shaped West Virginia’s cultural, economic, and political landscapes.
Access: West Virginia Humanities Council at; phone (304)346 8500

Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People
2008 Four 55-min. episodes; Agee Films
This four-part documentary, touted as the first “environmental history series,” is the work of Ross Spears and Jamie Ross, who spent 10 years working on it. Actress Sissy Spacek narrates, and E.O. Wilson, a leading biologist and the keynote expert, describes the unique and important biological systems that make Appalachia what it is. The series ranges from prehistoric descriptions of the region, to the coming of Europeans, war and industrialization, and recent developments and rebirth. A soundtrack CD is also available.

Reconstructing Bill: The Story of Governor William C. Marland
2009 58 mins. WVPBS
Considered among the state's most intelligent and visionary chief executives, William Casey Marland gained notoriety as governor (1953 1957) for his call for a severance tax on natural resources and his stance on school integration. Marland made national news in 1965 when he was discovered driving a Chicago cab as part of a self made rehabilitation program in his fight to overcome alcoholism. He died of cancer at age 47. This film attempts to bring better understanding and a more complete view of Marland and his accomplishments through interviews, archival news film, home movies, still photographs, and audio recordings.
Access: WVPBS; phone (304)556 4900

The Water-Powered Mills of Pendleton County
2008 74 mins. Fort Seybert Heritage Educational Association
More than 40 water-driven mills existed at one time in remote Pendleton County, and this nostalgic documentary visits many of them. Gerald Milnes, one of West Virginia's leading filmmakers and musicians, directed and produced this film for the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College and the Fort Seybert Heritage Educational Association. Elder residents, such as the late Johnny Arvin Dahmer and Grace Dyer, as well as Eston Teter and many others talk about the wonderful world they enjoyed when these water powered mills were common in the North Fork, South Branch, and South Fork districts. The DVD is interactive, providing individual information on many of the mills.
Access: FSHEA c/o Deborah Horst, HC 69 Box 47E, Brandywine, WV 26802; phone (304)358-3884

40 Years: The West Virginia Highland Conservancy
2008 60 mins. Omni Productions
In October 2007, the West Virginia Highland Conservancy, the state’s oldest environmental advocacy organization, celebrated its 40th anniversary at Cheat Mountain Club on Shavers Fork. Charleston filmmaker Robert Gates was there to make this documentary. Former presidents and members, including some of the state’s best-known environmental activists, converse about the many successes and failures of the group’s first four decades. Access: Omni Productions; phone (304)342 2624 or e-mail

Black Lung: A History
2009 28 mins. MSHA
Using archival footage, the story of this 1960's populist uprising in West Virginia is told in cinema verité style. Interviews with several miners with black lung are mixed with comments by many West Virginia experts on coal mine safety to tell a compelling story of their success fighting their own union, the State Legislature, and the U.S. Congress. Their victory was the much-heralded Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Congressman Ken Hechler, primary author of the bill, is shown addressing miners in Kanawha County. Doctors, labor leaders, and government officials of the day are also interviewed.
Access: MSHA Printing & Training Materials Distribution; e-mail or phone (304)256 3257

Buffalo Creek Disaster
2009 (1972) 22 mins. Omni Productions
On February 26, 1972, the gob pile dams at Pittston’s Buffalo Mining failed at Three Forks above Lorado on Buffalo Creek, Logan County. A tidal wave of sludge and water swept down a 17-mile valley, killing 125 people and leaving thousands homeless. The following day, Citizens to Abolish Strip Mining flew over Buffalo Creek, and filmmaker Robert Gates photographed the valley. The next day, Gates filmed destruction in the Amhurstdale area. After State Police spotted his 16-mm Bolex camera in the back of a pickup truck, they blocked them from proceeding into the upper valley, citing a government-imposed news blackout. Gates edited this film into a 22 minute silent montage, portions of which appeared recently on the History Channel. In honor of the 35th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, Gates annotated the original montage to tell the story.
Access: Omni Productions; phone (304)342 2624 or e-mail

Coal Country
2009 90 mins. Evening Star Productions
Mari Lynn Evans, a native of Bulltown, Braxton County, and producer of the recent three-part series The Appalachians, returns to her native state to produce a provocative film about mountaintop removal mining (MTR). The film opens in Williamson, at a summer party paid for by Massey Energy. Many people who support MTR are interviewed, including president of the West Virginia Coal Association Bill Raney, the president of the National Coal Association, and people who are involved in MTR site restoration. On the other side, interviews include many long time opponents of strip mining, such as leading West Virginia public servant Ken Hechler, musician Kathy Mattea, Judy Bonds, and others. This film on MTR shows both sides of the hotly contested issue more than any previous release.

Kanawha City Glass films
Between 1916 and 1980, the Kanawha City area of present-day Charleston was the site of Libbey-Owens-Ford, the world’s largest maker of sheet glass. Across the road, the Owens-Illinois factory was once the world’s largest manufacturer of glass bottles, operating from 1917 until 1963. Local filmmaker Joseph Hodges has produced two films recently concerning these plants. Using historical photographs, reunion footage, and comments from retired workers, Hodges revisits the days when Kanawha City was one of the glass capitals of the world.
Access: Joseph Hodges, 5426 Lancaster Avenue SE, Charleston, WV 25304; phone (304)925 1819 or e-mail

Listen to the Women
2008 36 mins. Patchwork Films
B.J. Gudmundsson profiles Gloria Stredwick Martin, showing her work as an advocate for victims of family violence and sexual assault, and celebrating her lifetime of dedication to women's issues. Ms. Martin is a victims’ advocate and former executive director of the Family Refuge Center in Lewisburg. She discusses her remarkable life, including a trip to a global conference on women held in China.
Access: Patchwork Films at; phone (304)645-4998

Long Runway Home: Honoring Col. John and Ruth Gwinn
2008 36 mins. Patchwork Films
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel John W. Gwinn built the Greenbrier Valley Airport at Pence Springs in 1967, and, together with his wife, managed it for the next 27 years. Mrs. Gwinn, the former Ruth Tolley, was born in 1919 in Raleigh County. The W.P.A. built an airfield on her family’s farm in Summers County, and she was hooked. “I didn’t learn to drive,” Ruth says. “I learned to fly!” She soloed at age 16 and holds the distinction of being the youngest woman in West Virginia to obtain a pilot’s license. This film highlights this colorful couple and their dedication to rural flight.
Access: Patchwork Films at; phone (304)645-499

West Virginia Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
2007/2008 120 min. each WVMHF
The new West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inducted 19 influential musicians, singers, and composers at ceremonies held in Charleston during November the past two years. The gala evenings featured appearances and performances by many of the living inductees, as well as tributes to those who are deceased. Both ceremonies were aired live by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the resulting DVD’s provide a record of these memorable nights. Highlights from 2007 include Hazel Dickens, Bill Withers, George Crumb, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Billy Edd Wheeler. 2008 highlights include Charlie McCoy, Robert Drasnin, the Lilly Brothers, and relatives of Polka King Frankie Yankovic.
Access: The DVD’s are offered as a premium for a minimum $15 donation to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame; visit or phone (304)342-4412

Still Bill
2009 90 mins. Slab Fork Productions
Musician Bill Withers was born 1938 in Slab Fork, Raleigh County. Inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007, he is the composer of many of the best-known songs written in America since WWII, including "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Use Me." Many know his songs, many popular artists have recorded them, but few know much about this quiet man, who had a major influence on American popular music. Dr. Cornel West, Sting, and others are interviewed along with Withers and his family and friends.

Doc & Chickie Williams Golden Wedding Anniversary Concert
2009 (1989) 90 mins. Wheeling Music
Wheeling musical legends Doc & Chickie Williams were to the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree what Roy Acuff was to the Grand Ole Opry. They played to enthusiastic audiences there each week, beginning in the late 1930's, and drew large crowds to their live shows, thanks to their wholesome and family-oriented presentation of traditional country music. In 1989, the pair marked their 50th wedding anniversary with a special concert at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling, including many of their most popular numbers, guest artists, and family members. This DVD is a reissue of the original video tape of the concert, with 30 minutes of new bonus material.
Access: Doc Williams, P.O. Box 902, Wheeling, WV 26003; e-mail

West Virginia Mountain Music
2009 40 mins. Dwight Diller
There is no human presence except that of traditional mountain music in this soothing and innovative nature film. Retired National Geographic photographers Bates and Jody Littlehales spent years gathering images from the rugged mountains of Pocahontas and Pendleton counties, depicting native plants and animals throughout the four seasons. Dwight Diller’s stark fiddle and banjo playing provides an apt soundtrack for this lush and relaxing visit to what is perhaps the most rural and remote corner of our state.
Access: Elaine Maxham Diller, Morning Star Folk Arts, HC 64 Box 415, Hillsboro, WV 24946; phone (304)653-4397 or e-mail

Remembering William C. Blizzard
2009 55 mins. Killer Productions
William C. Blizzard (1916-2008) was one of three children of legendary labor figure Bill Blizzard, leader of the “Red Neck Army” at the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. The younger Blizzard spent his life working as a journalist, photographer, and labor activist; was the author of the 2004 book When Miners March; and was the subject of a feature story in the Summer 2006 issue of GOLDENSEAL. [See “Son of the Struggle: A Visit with William C. Blizzard,” by C. Belmont “Chuck” Keeney.] In spring 2008, Charleston filmmaker Kelley Thompson interviewed Blizzard for more than an hour for another project. When Blizzard died that December, Kelley decided to make a film about this man who spent almost a century fighting for West Virginia miners, using this interview footage along with the comments of coworkers, scholars, and other admirers.
Access: Kelley Thompson,; phone (304)344 1990

Mosque in Morgantown
2009 75 mins. Brittany Huckabeee
After reporting from post 9/11 Pakistan, Indian Muslim Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani returns to the West Virginia town where she grew up, to discover that the mosque there had been taken over by men she sees as extremists. This film chronicles what happens when she decides to fight back, angering even the mosque’s moderates. The film tells a story of competing paths to social change, American identity, and the nature of religion itself.

West Virginia Author: James A. Haught
2008 30 min. WVLC Library Television Network
Host Gordon Simmons interviews author and The Charleston Gazette editor James A. Haught, concerning his new book, Fascinating West Virginia. The book is a compilation of Haught’s essays on the state that have been published over the years in the Gazette. Born and raised in Wirt County, Haught has worked at the Gazette for 50 years, first as reporter, and then as assistant editor, and as editor. He is also the author of books about religion, science, and other topics.

Shades of Gray
2008 60 mins. Allegheny Image Factory
Gray Barker of Clarksburg built a small publishing empire from the early 1950's through the ‘80's, based entirely on the public’s fascination with UFO’s. Beginning with the famous (or infamous) Flatwoods Monster sighting in 1952, Barker carved out a career with his writings about the unexplained. This film peels the layers off one of the great American hoaxers of the late 20th century, who almost single handedly created or perpetuated much of what is now taken as the "gospel" of UFO’s. Director Bob Wilkinson looks beyond Barker’s public life and reveals how his private life was as much myth as anything he ever wrote.