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.