When Al Gore presented Pittsboro, N.C., filmmaker Michael O'Connell with the award for best documentary at this year's Nashville Film Festival, he didn't just rattle off a prepared speech and smile for the photo-op. The former vice president, once berated for his lack of visible emotion, nearly choked up onstage as he recalled the plight of Ed Wiley, the protagonist in Mountain Top Removal, O'Connell's film about a devastating method of coal mining in Southern Appalachia.
"I was telling Ed that his campaign to get a new school, because of the terrible impact of mountaintop removal, is really part and parcel of the same kind of struggle that I and others have been involved in, to try to get a solution to the global climate crisis," Gore said, before inviting Wiley onstage. "It's the same fight, really."
He added: "You can tell I feel strongly about this, and have for a long time, but the feelings I'm expressing here were really evoked, in a significant way, by this film."
Mountain Top Removal focuses largely on the story of Wiley, who walks from West Virginia to Washington, D.C., to demand that his granddaughter's school be moved from its precarious position directly beneath a mountaintop removal site in Marsh Fork, W. Va. The town's elementary school sits a few hundred yards under an artificial lake containing 2.8 billion gallons of "coal slurry," the toxic by-product released after dynamiting mountain peaks and separating coal from the core. (An industry spokesman in the film describes slurry as "nothing more than dirt and rock," though samples contain toxic levels of arsenic, lead and mercury. Massey Energy—the company that owns the Marsh Fork mine—agreed in 2008 to a $20 million settlement for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act.)
O'Connell spent 15 months, with no crew and—with the exception of roughly $11,500 in contributions—a self-funded budget, documenting the lives of West Virginians who have stood up against a well-entrenched coal industry. The director, who grew up in suburban Virginia and began his entertainment career mixing sound at a prominent D.C. jazz club, moved to North Carolina nearly 20 years ago to become a soundman for UNC-TV, where he now edits film. He took his technical experience, coupled with a childhood fondness for nature and a passion for civil rights, to the mountains of West Virginia in 2005.
"I just showed up as a journalist and started looking around. I met these people, saw what they were doing, and it unfolded very naturally," he says in an interview with the Indy.
His most important discovery, perhaps, was Wiley, whose indignation pours through the movie frames.
"I just went with my intuition," O'Connell says. "It wasn't a lot of, 'Oh, well this guy's not going to work or that guy's not going to work.' It was, 'Holy smokes, look at these people. Look what's going on here.' When Ed said, 'I'm going to walk to D.C.,' I was struggling with which direction to take—legal, environmental, people, humanities, the school. When he said that, I got off the phone, and turned to my wife and said, 'He just solved our problem.'"
After garnering public support on his walk to D.C., Wiley and other activists returned to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin's office to demand action, and O'Connell filmed a six-hour standoff that ended with police officers dragging off protesters, including a defiant 90-year-old woman who says, "I'm ready to die. Are you?"
In an interview from his home in West Virginia, Wiley says he didn't harp on the dramatic action of Mountain Top Removal, though he says every time he watched the film he was "moved."
"You just got to let it pass you. You can't sit there and put yourself up on a pedestal and think you're going to shine, because you're not. You've got to keep moving forward. You've got to get it done."
He adds: "The story, with the children—people care about the environment, people really love the environment, but when you're trying to save these kids' lives and they're breathing chemicals and in danger every single day, it's a different kind of worry. You want it to end."
Wiley says he opened up to O'Connell, not surprisingly, because he trusted the filmmaker's dedication to the project.
"Mike put a lot of time in it," he says. "I'm not sure what his budget was, but I know it was real low, compared to what some people had. ... He stuck it out. He put his heart in it, and I've seen that. He cares."
Independent film producer Gill Holland, who signed on as an executive producer after seeing an early cut of Mountain Top Removal, describes the film as a "tragically good story."
"He did it right," Holland says of O'Connell, in an interview. "He green-lit himself and saved money by doing everything. And since he is a quintessentially talented filmmaker, it was successful."
Country musician Kathy Mattea, a West Virginia native whose latest album, Coal, explores the history of coal mining in her home state, met O'Connell and watched the film at the Nashville Film Festival. She hosted a second screening in Nashville recently.
"I was inspired by his getting into the story and trying to help give voice to the people who are living through this," she says in an interview from her home in Nashville.
"It's so hidden, and so remote, that it's very easy to be overlooked," she says. "That's the power of this film. That gives me a lot of hope. I really think that what's going on in the coal fields is going to play out into the civil rights movement of my time."
Mattea says she was "touched" that someone who grew up near D.C. and lived in North Carolina would choose to document coal towns in West Virginia. But already, the film has had a national impact. In addition to the award presented by Gore, Mountain Top Removal has earned top prizes at film festivals in North Carolina and California. In May, N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison, motivated in part by O'Connell's documentary, introduced legislation that would make it illegal for North Carolina power plants to burn coal derived from mountaintop removal.
"The fact that we're the second-largest consumers of that coal will make the legislation an uphill battle," Harrison says in an interview. "But I think having Mike's documentary, and other media attention on the issue, might get people a little more sensitive to the issue of where their energy comes from. Right now you feel kind of removed from it. But once you see the documentary, you realize, wow, I'm running my air-conditioning at 68 and ... these communities are being destroyed in West Virginia."