A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
by Meg White
Phylis Geller — the writer, producer and director of the new documentary film Coal Country — sees her latest work as something of an attempt at conflict resolution. But when the mere definition of neutrality is at stake, it’s hard to appear evenhanded.
Such is the case with coal in West Virginia. Geller says “the topic is in the air” after a flurry of lawsuits, demonstrations, conflicts and lobbying surrounding the coal-producing region in Appalachia. “Then there’s this film that purports to be fair, but if it doesn’t just support your side, you don’t think it’s fair.”
She’s no stranger to the area. Geller and the film’s executive producer (and native Appalachian) Mari-Lynn Evans also collaborated to create the three-part television series Appalachia. But Geller called the film’s premier in West Virginia “an event unlike any other.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Geller over the phone Tuesday evening about the controversy surrounding the film and its debut in West Virginia this past Saturday.
Though they had booked the premier with the South Charleston Museum’s LaBelle Theater months in advance, the event was canceled last minute. The Wednesday before the Saturday of the event, museum representatives called and said that, due to security concerns, they were going to cancel the showing.
What may sound like an overreaction to a couple of protesters and some unwanted controversy was much more than that. Protests and demonstrations have recently rocked coal country, and miners are already on edge. The industry is also worried about possible changes from the Obama Administration, according to Geller.
“They had a good friend in the Bush Administration,” she said.
Geller was worried about the possibility of violence herself. After a fracas between miners and environmentalists over the recent July 4 weekend, she wasn’t taking any chances either. They had hired private security and had tried to convince state troopers to be on hand for the premier.
“We were not naive. We knew that we were creating something volatile,” Geller said. She said they scrambled to find an alternative venue after the cancelation, but every theater told them they were booked or that they didn’t want the controversy either.
In the end, West Virginia’s Secretary of Arts and Education Kay Goodwin came to the rescue. She appealed to the West Virginia Cultural Center, situated right next to the state’s capitol building, to host the event, which went off before a standing-room-only crowd without a hitch last Saturday.
Geller noticed that local news reports on the event said the crowd was calm.
“That’s true. But the crowd was very vocal,” Geller said, adding that in all of her years of experience in TV and film, “I’ve never had an audience like this.”
After all, it’s not often that a documentary filmmaker can claim their premier was “like watching a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Audience members yelled at the screen when they disapproved of what an interviewee said. Geller described the tension as quite serious, and said that the audience was split down the middle of the theater between environmentalists and the mining community. Both groups had their own objections to different parts of the film. After the showing, she said the police had to ask a few people to leave. But there were moments of reconciliation as well.
“We also had a miner and an environmentalist shaking hands,” Geller said, noting that the two told her they’d never met before that night.
Geller said she went into the project without an agenda, but that she couldn’t help coming out of the experience with a point of view.
“Coal is the 800-pound gorilla,” Geller said, noting that while it is the dirtiest fuel available in this country, it also supplies the nation with half its energy.
“The industry is right when they say there’s no replacement tomorrow,” Geller said. She favors a gradual, rational process of weaning ourselves off of coal. Also, she said the monoculture on which coal country states rely needs to be replaced with other industries that could provide greener jobs.
Geller does say that one action should be undertaken almost immediately, however. The controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining, which Geller calls the “most heinous” form of extracting coal from the earth, “could be summarily stopped.”
She noted that 3,500 people in West Virginia work on mountaintop removal sites, a fraction of the approximately 40,000 people directly employed in the coal mining business in the state.
Geller said her ultimate goal with the film was not to change minds, but “to create some compassion for people on the other side.” She wants to put a human face on both the suffering of those who deal with the environmental fallout from mining, as well as the people who depend on mining to feed their families.
(I haven’t personally had the pleasure of seeing the film myself yet, but according to this review by Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, Geller and Evans seem to have lived up to their own high standards.)
While the film strives to humanize both sides, the industry and its supporters are using a strategy of “divide and conquer, [as] keeping these people at each others’ throats serves the purpose of trying to keep activists quiet,” according to Geller.
While she wanted to show both sides in the film, the coal industry’s near universal rejection of interview requests made that difficult. Geller said the industry automatically equated her role as “filmmaker” with “rabble rouser.”
The exception to that rule was Randall Maggard, manager of environmental compliance at Argus Energy, who is featured prominently in the film. He is a compassionate, emotional defender of coal mining, for whom Geller says she has the utmost respect.
In fact, respect and admiration for the subjects of Coal Country is something that has clearly stuck with Geller since finishing the film.
“They have been through so much, [having been] used and exploited for 150 years,” first by the timber industry, then by coal, Geller said. “They’ve never really benefited from the wealth… It’s really hard to take when you’re down there.”
But the residents of coal country are both an independent and committed lot. And this is nothing new for them. After fighting for unionization last century, they’re now embroiled in a new environmental and economic struggle.
“It’s always a fight for these people,” Geller said.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Coal Country is not scheduled for nationwide release until November 2009; however the film’s companion book is available for pre-order now. Also, special screenings are currently being planned all over the country, from New York to Akron, OH to San Francisco, CA. Check the official Web site of Coal Country for the latest.