In the earliest stage of spring, Occoneechee Mountain near Hillsborough is still largely brown, its hillsides dotted by daffodils and perfumed by the faint scent of new life.
"I started this project because I wanted to be in places like this," says director Chad Stevens, whose film OVERBURDEN premieres at Full Frame (April 10, 10:20 a.m., Cinema 3 at the Durham Convention Center).
Stevens and his co-producers, Elena Rue and Catherine Orr, are hiking one of the mountain's trails, which leads to the rim of a quarry where workers once mined gravel for railroad beds. I chose this spot because after seeing Overburden—which refers to the soil, plants, trees and animal habitats that are removed when a mountain is scalped for its coal—I imagined what Occoneechee, which passes for high ground in these parts, would look like if it were ravaged.
What distinguishes Overburden, which is set in West Virginia, from a dozen other documentaries about mountaintop removal is its highly nuanced depiction of a complex issue. The film, which took nearly a decade to finish, is not a polemic. Nonetheless, it projects a clear point of view, one that relies on strong characters to steer through us through the thorny emotional terrain of Appalachian stereotypes, the conflict between insiders vs. outsiders and the diverging opinions about coal's environmental and economic toll.
"West Virginia is always portrayed in a black-and-white way, but it's more complicated," Orr says. "It made me think about, what other things do I simplify that aren't simple?"
Each of the two opposing forces has a personal stake in the fate of coal mining, although an April 2010 disaster at the Upper Branch Mine force them to find common ground.
"I'm doing this for my grandchildren," one subject, Lorelei, says. Instead of mining, she supports a wind farm that could be built on a mountain that lies behind her home and is next on Massey Energy's list for decapitation.
Betty, however, supports the coal industry, which has lifted her brother and thousands of other miners from poverty. "See all these big houses?" Betty says in one of the film's early scenes. "They were paid for by coal."
Since the War on Poverty of the 1960s, the media, including filmmakers, have unfairly reduced West Virginia and Appalachia to a stereotype of unsophisticated, destitute hill-dwellers who need to be saved by outsiders. Before the film, Stevens, who was born in Kentucky, had worked on an Appalachia project to counter those stereotypes. That experience pays off in Overburden, which empathetically portrays the residents without a whiff of pity or exoticism. They can solving their own problems, without intervention.
That could give some viewers pause. And we might see ourselves in Rory, an environmental activist from out of town, who comes to West Virginia with the best of intentions. To stop the destruction, he chains himself to machinery, and is arrested. But after a political setback, he heads back to the Northeast, dismayed.
"Rory was complicated," says Stevens, who lives in Chapel Hill. "The transient protesters get to leave. Lorelei has to live there."
Stevens spent years winning Lorelei's trust. She had a personal reason for her reticence: Her son-in-law worked for Massey Energy. "She was afraid if they put it together that his mother-in-law is a tree hugger, they would let him go or give him an unsafe job," Stevens says.
One could argue that there are no safe jobs at a coal mine, except the one held by Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship. Arrogant and ruthless, he ordered workers at Upper Branch Mine to give safety short shrift for the sake of producing more coal. Blankenship is the perfect villain, and one that, even after a mining disaster, appears to be impenetrable to prosecution.
When a version of the film screened in Durham last July at Fresh Docs, a monthly forum for works-in-progress, it had a different finale that reflected the daily uncertainties of life in a mining town. "Not everything has a tidy ending," Stevens says. "The hope was for justice in the coalfields."
Stevens had long hoped Blankenship would be indicted before the film was finished, but such serendipity is not to be counted on. "I told him, 'That's not going to happen,'" Orr says.
Then, in November, the U.S. Justice Department did just that—indicting Blankenship on several federal charges, including health and safety violations and conspiracy. His trial is scheduled to begin April 20.
Yet even if Blankenship is convicted and receives the maximum 31 years in prison, the feeling of vindication may be fleeting. Cheaper natural gas, weaker global demand and tougher emissions standards for power plants has sent the U.S. coal industry into free fall and, by extension, has jeopardized West Virginia's mono-economy.
Even though West Virginia legislators have established a fund to help diversify the economy, politicians under the coal industry's spell are late in arriving at a solution.
"What's happening in the coal industry is what Lorelei predicted," Stevens says, as we head down Occoneechee Mountain. "It's the death rattle of coal."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Grim peaks"