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This conversation originally aired in the May 28, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Appalachian filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s new “King Coal” blends documentary and imaginative storytelling in a way that pulls viewers into a compelling portrait of Appalachia’s coal communities.
The film includes scenes of coal mining operations and culture in surrounding mountain towns, as it follows two girls who are dancers and dreamers through the landscapes of coal.
“King Coal” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It was also screened at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. That’s where Inside Appalachia host Mason Adams spoke with Sheldon, co-producer Molly Born, and breath artist Shodekeh Talifero.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Adams: This film showed an Appalachia that I’m very familiar with; it showed the Appalachia that I know. But it also showed an Appalachia I don’t know. So my first question is, how did you get that incredible coal mining footage?
Sheldon: That was when I was making the project “Hollow” in 2012, in McDowell County. I had been trying to get access to a mine over and over and over, and just kept getting shut down. Nobody wanted me to film. That mine actually was one that I think my brother and my dad both worked at separate times, and so they were able to help me build the trust there. I was allowed to witness one shift.
Basically, we go into the mine, we see Bobby Lee, who’s the miner, operating a continuous miner, which is a massive piece of machinery that he stands away from with a remote control, and controls all that while he’s looking over his back making sure the coal is going back in the right direction and that he’s not pinning someone against the wall with that type of machinery. Basically, it’s just a really violent scene where the machine is just crunching into this earth and just going at it. And I don’t think most people know what that looks like. But it’s loud, it’s dusty, it’s wet, because they’re spraying so much water to keep the dust down. It’s a really intense job. And it shows you how on-edge miners can get.
So with that, we get out of the mine, and then we go into the garden where I tell a story, which is very true, that you just don’t sneak up behind them, because they’ve lived a life where they have been scared of getting pinned by rock or rock falling on them or whatever. It’s one of my favorite sequences, because it shows both this very aggressive experience that people have, and then this gentleness that they occupy when they’re above ground just as human beings tending their gardens. I think that juxtaposition is true for a lot of people that do that work.
Adams: Can you all talk a little bit about how you kind of initially conceived this through these scenes, and how it came together to make what we saw on the screen last night?
Born: We were both interested in these expressions of coal-related culture — these objects, these places. I remember being aware of these for years. My best friend in high school had a “coal miner’s daughter“ bumper sticker on her car. We’ve always seen these emblems and these expressions of pride. But then we’ve also seen these events where people come together in the community to talk about this place that we don’t often see.
I have never been in a coal mine, except for the exhibition coal mine where we filmed and the one in Lynch, Kentucky, as well. This is a world that many of us only know peripherally or we don’t know at all. And I think the events get at that complexity as well. Like, the scene in the classroom where Fred Powers is talking about his experience underground. There’s that moment where he’s talking about the methane explosion. There’s some levity in the way that he is talking about it. But it’s also really tragic. And then later in that scene, as a kid asked him, “Do you miss being a coal miner?” And he says, “Yes, I do.” And he says it without missing a beat. And that captures that complexity.
I think the film started as us capturing these real life moments. When COVID hit in 2020, like many film teams, and like everyone else, we stopped working for a bit. So many of the coal events that we filmed before the pandemic did not come back, so that was an interesting, and really, really special thing that we captured a lot of these moments as a living archive. But you [talking to Sheldon] were really interested in bringing in your family’s experience. It shifted into what has been described as an essay film or an experimental film, a hybrid documentary. I think it needed to become that to say what we needed to say.
Sheldon: We were filming these coal scenes. We went to classrooms to film kids doing these things with coal. We filmed the coal dust run, where they throw fake coal dust on people. The football team touching this coal as they come out of the locker room, hands on the coal over and over and over, the dedication to miners that night. It was all really exciting to film because it was real, and it was so heartfelt. It was also all very ironic, and we really felt like it was lacking the context of understanding the psychology. Psychology is impossible to show, so we had to think of other ways — cinematic techniques, dreamscapes, other things — to take us into that realm that would make this more universal. Figuring out the art form that would do that was important.
Adams: We’ve talked about the documentary side, but there are these other scenes showing the beauty of the region. People called it the “dreamy part” or “the part with the girls.” Can you tell us what folks are talking about when they say that?
Sheldon: There’s cultural scenes that are real scenes, we did not orchestrate any of them. And then there’s two girls that we cast at local dance studios, Molly found them in her kid in Charleston. Once we realized we needed that sort of ushering the audience into this psyche, we wanted it to be through the viewpoint of children. Children allow us entry into an old story in a new way with humor and irony, and all these things. This new energy, new life thinking about the future. And so we put Lanie and Gabby in scenes that were real. The most important thing was that the girls then became a catalyst for thinking about the future. We’re not, you know, recommending a replacement economy if we do this and do this. It’s more of just getting people to remember that imagination and thinking about the future with creativity and imagination is kind of our only hope.
Adams: There’s a line about “millions of tons of coal, leave these hills, we stay here.” And it seems like this film is in a lot of ways about what happens to the people who have been part of this culture as the actual industry fades. Does that seem like an accurate read?
Sheldon: Yeah. I think the film is also trying to make the point that oftentimes, the things we value, the things that have monetary value, aren’t the most valuable things locally to where they’re produced. And so the coal that’s left and left and left and left our state of West Virginia struggles to keep schools open and roads paved. The people at the center of it, their resilience and their dignity has always been what’s interesting to both of us, and their choice to stay and how hard or difficult that’s been. Usually they’re depicted as not having choice.
We wanted to show people as actually making a choice to stay. The line of, “millions of tons of coal leaves these hills, we stay here” — it was a defiant line. But it’s a bittersweet line, because it’s followed up with the falling of the Mingo Oak, which is the place we went to have sanctuary on Sunday. The Mingo Oak was the world’s largest white oak, and it suffocated from a coal burning waste pile nearby. For me, anytime the film started to feel romantic or happy, I’ll pull it back to some reality because I do think that’s truer to our lives. They have been bittersweet.
Adams: The film not only looks stunning, but it’s amazing to listen to as well. How did you start working with Shodekeh?
Sheldon: The sound team is made of all stars, including Shodekeh. The first person to mention on the sound team is Billy Wirasnik, who recorded all those lush sounds you hear. And then last year, at Big Ears in Knoxville, Shodekeh came to perform. He is beyond a breath artist. He does all kinds of vocal percussion and beatboxing. I just almost fell off my seat, because I didn’t even know what he was doing with his mouth to make these sounds that sounded like nature and life and death and all these things, all the themes of the film. I just was blown away. I walked right up to him after his thing and got his card. I followed up with him not really knowing what we needed to do. We had conversations and he came to West Virginia. We did a whole recording. I didn’t know what he did was even a thing. But when I heard it, I knew the film couldn’t live without it.
Adams: So when Elaine laid out the film to you, what did you think?
Talifero: Piggybacking off what you [Sheldon] said about “I didn’t know that what he does is a thing,” I’m trying to figure out how this can be a thing or is it a thing. I had just completed working a commission at the National Aquarium, and I approached that specifically through the lens of being a breath artist and not a beatboxer. So it [“King Coal”] was the next perfect project for me.
Adams: I know you recorded in the Monongahela National Forest. What was that like?
Talifero: The part of Monongahela National Forest that we are in doesn’t look real. It looks like a movie set. Sonically, the space was very still that day. I was just trying to call out to the space and call out to the vision. Elaine said, ‘Okay, so you’re the mountains, you’re the coal, you’re the earth” — all these things that go way beyond just me, little old me.
“King Coal” is screening in select cities around the country. Upcoming screenings include Aug. 19, Appalachian Film Festival (Huntington, WV); and Sept. 29, Mtn Craft Film Festival (Clarksburg, WV).
The filmmakers expect a wider release this summer.