Film Review: “Overburden” (2015)

During the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, I had the pleasure of watching Chad Stevens’ remarkable and moving documentary Overburden, about the coal mining industry in West Virginia and the lives of those that affects.  As the son of a coal miner, I found the film to be a profoundly touching portrait of the lives of those who dwell in Appalachia and who rely on this most toxic and dangerous of professions for their livelihood.

Filmed over several years, the film follows two women.  Lorelei is a woman whose husband contracted black lung as a result of his years of working in the mine and left her a widow.  Fed up with the way the industry consistently denies its workers safety and outraged at the plans for mountain top removal in her community, Lorelei sets out to demand accountability from the industry and to do what she can to prevent the destruction of the natural beauty of her hometown.  Betty, on the other hand, is a firm advocate of the coal industry and recognizes the necessity of coal mines to the continued economic viability of Appalachia as a whole and WV in particular.  However, when her brother is killed in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, she begins to change her mind about the coal industry and joins with Lorelei to demand accountability.

There is a point in the film where Betty points out that, in WV, coal is family, coal is what keeps people from spending their days on the unemployment line.  And the unfortunate fact is that this is true for the vast majority of those living in Appalachia as a whole.  You either seek out (often very dangerous and destructive) employment in the mines, or you seek out retail or, if you are one of the truly desperate, you turn to selling drugs.  The film grants this reality consideration, and while some may take away a belief that the film is against the coal industry, it would be just as accurate to say that it is instead a call to action to at least begin thinking about other possibilities for energy (one subplot involves the ultimately thwarted attempt to install a wind farm on one of the more prominent mountains).

As much as Lorelei and Betty are the dramatic core of the film, no review would be complete without mentioning the beautiful West Virginia landscape that becomes, in Stevens’ hands, a character in its own right.  The viewer is invited to experience the sense of horror and anger that the people of Appalachia feel as they watch their breathtaking mountains gutted by the machines of modernity, while their neighbors and families find their bodies also abjected by the economic powers over which they have no control and which their government steadfastly refuses to rein in.

What surprised me the most (although pleasantly so), was the way in which the film managed to give the people of WV their own voice without becoming patronizing.  The film world is full of productions that poke ruthless fun at the people of Appalachia (Deliverance, Wrong Turn and its sequels, to name but a few), and even those films that attempt to give them some more complex representation still deny them their own voice.  Stevens, however, manages to let both Lorelei and Betty, two very different women with two very different perspectives on the coal industry and its place (and future) in West Virginia, the chance to express their views without judgment.  The fact that the film ends with the indictment of Don Blankenship (the executive whose actions in part caused the Upper Big Branch disaster), allows us at least a measure of satisfaction.

Whether you are pro or anti-coal (or somewhere in between), I definitely recommend that you watch this film.  The questions that it raises are not easily answered, but that we as a culture and a society definitely need to start asking as we face the uncertainties of climate change.  The fact that these questions demand so much of us makes it all the more imperative that our leaders, both at the state and federal levels, finally commit to discussin them in a meaningful and intellectually rigorous way.

Score:  10/10

A Love/Hate Letter to West Virginia

Dear West Virginia:

My decision to write this letter was inspired my several things:  by being home visiting Family, the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are allowed, the great advances made in gay rights across the country, and by my state’s recent birthday.  It caused me to think long and hard about my vexed relationship to my home state, what I love about it and its people, and what I absolutely hate.

There’s no denying that there are lots of things about you, West Virginia, to love.  From delicious pepperoni rolls to people who are often quite warm and welcoming, you have a culture all its own.  You are home to a people who have, for centuries, been exploited by natural resource industries, from lumber to coal to (most recently) natural gas, and the rest of the country has routinely looked down on them, mocking them in popular culture and rendering them the butt of crude jokes.  Yet for all of that, they still greet strangers with genuine warmth, and I love that about you.  There is nothing quite like the heartfelt hospitality of a West Virginia home.  They might not have much, but they are more than willing to share that, even with strangers.

And when it comes to natural beauty, no one (and I mean no one) can beat West Virginia.  Your sprawling mountains, your wooded hillsides that come alive with color in the autumn, your waterfalls, your vibrant wildlife…I simply cannot say enough about how beautiful you are.  And it terrifies me how endangered and fragile that beauty is, as both the coal and the gas industries seem absolutely determined to do everything in their power to spoil and ruin that beauty, and the worst part about it is that they convince your people that the violation of your natural beauty is in their own best interests.

You see, that geography and that history has left some nasty scars, and they are not so easily shaken off.  West Virginia, let’s face it, you need to catch up to the 21st Century.  Your stubborn opposition to any social or cultural movements is staggeringly myopic, and it is costing you your lifeblood.  Year after year, I hear about how anxious you are about all of the young, college-educated people leaving the state.  Do you want to know why these people are leaving?  They are leaving because, increasingly, the people of West Virginia are doing everything they can to fit into those awful stereotypes.  Willful ignorance and retrenchment does not help your cause.  I hate it that I have to constantly explain why it is that the people of my state aren’t rising up in rebellion against the companies that are so blatantly exploiting them.  I hate it that my state still lags behind on the acceptance of various minorities, and that it will probably take nothing short of a SCOTUS ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage to make you accept same-sex relationships.  But even that will not be enough; you have to change the way you think about people who are different than your expected “norm.”  I hate it that you remain a cultural and social backwater, when you have so much potential to be so much more.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is this.  I understand, West Virginia, that you have a heritage that you want to respect, and I am, to an extent, proud of that heritage.  However, you also have to realize that there is so much that goes into that heritage, not just white, Christian, heterosexual people.  And, just as importantly, you are going to have to start making room in your state for diversity in all of its forms.  If you don’t, you take the risk of alienating yourself from a future that should, in my opinion, include you.  You have a great deal to offer the rest of the country, but they will find it very difficult to take you seriously and welcome you into the vibrant and diverse place this country can be.  That doesn’t mean you have to abandon everything that makes you, you, but you need to find a way to reconcile your past and your future.

Hopefully, you can do that, and make me unequivocally proud to be a West Virginian.

Love/Hate,

T.J.