Mike O'Connell's introduction to coal mining culture came at an early age and in a most inauspicious way.
"Growing up in Reston, Va., my family and I would often travel on the weekends to West Virginia," remembers O'Connell. "When I was about 8 years old, we were visiting the Capon Bridge area, and I remember hearing people discussing how a person's house had been dynamited to make way for a coal mine. That story always stayed with me."
When O'Connell, now a burgeoning filmmaker, began looking for a new project several years ago, he recalled both that incident and news accounts about an insidious new form coal mining known as mountain top removal (MTR). O'Connell's research eventually led to him to the Mountain Justice Summer activist group and, eventually, West Virginia's Coal River valley. There, over the course of two years, O'Connell filmed the beleaguered citizens who comprise the core of his documentary, Mountain Top Removal, which will be screened Thursday, March 20, at the Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) campus in Pittsboro.
Among those featured are a man fighting to force the state to build a new elementary school away from a nearby coal-slurry pond ("None of the teachers' children attend the school," observes O'Connell), a woman living on land she cannot sell because the well water is polluted, and a town trying to preserve its history and geography against an encroaching MTR mine.
"Being around those people was so inspiring," says O'Connell. "They are fighting for their lives and homes against this destructive form of mining. I have been to former strip mining sites that are over 50 years old, and trees will grow back there. However, [MTR] actually changes the geology of the area and cuts off the tops of mountain peaks. Those do not grow back."
Although MTRs date back to the 1970s, O'Connell says recent policies and administrative rulings have caused a proliferation of the practice during the past eight years. "When I was filming in West Virginia, the feeling I got was that the pace of MTR was rapidly increasing, almost as if the coal companies were trying to get what they could while the [Bush] administration is in office."
An incident last month illustrates this point. Mountain Top Removal was invited to screen at a film festival in Ljublajna, Slovenia. However, upon landing in Slovenia, O'Connell learned that U.S. officials, apparently after taking a closer look at his film's content, had attempted to withdraw a government travel grant before festival organizers intervened on his behalf.
O'Connell got his early audio/ video training decades ago in Washington, D.C., while working at "Blue Alley," a venerable dinner and jazz nightclub in Georgetown. "Back then, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughn would play there, and they usually didn't bring their own light-and-sound crew, so I got to work up-close with all these greats."
After moving to Pittsboro in 1990, O'Connell spent 15 years working as a staff photographer for UNC-TV before venturing into independent filmmaking. His first project, GrassRoots Stages, spent a brief run on PBS.
Since the film's first screening (also at CCCC, where he paid $300 to rent the facility), O'Connell has shown his film worldwide, most recently at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It won the award for Best Documentary at last year's Charlotte Film Festival, and it has been nominated for a Reel Current Award at next month's Nashville Film Festival, where the winner will be selected and presented by Al Gore.
The final cut of the film now includes a narration by actor William Mapother (Lost; In The Bedroom). This time, the CCCC screening will carry a $5 ticket price to benefit the effort to build the new elementary school in West Virginia. "And," quips O'Connell, "I don't have to pay rent this time."
For more information, go to www.hawriverfilms.com.