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Film on Coalfield Mountaintop Removal: An Interview with the Film's Director

October 23, 2007

Category: Academics, Events

by Juanita Teschner, Catawba New Service

Catherine Pancake grew up in West Virginia, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who preached against the strip mining that ravaged the Appalachian Mountains when she was growing up. That experience, plus a visit to the region several years ago, prompted her to produce the documentary, "Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice."

"When we were little, Dad would show us the sites and talk about why it was bad," Pancake recalls.   "But I was so young — 4 or 5 years old — that it was confusing and disorienting. I couldn't quite put it together. I just knew it looked bad and my dad didn't like it."

Pancake's sister, Ann, revisited the issue, bringing it to her attention again in 1999. (Ann completed her dissertation on Appalachian images in American literature and has written a novel about a family struggling with mountaintop removal mining.) "You won't believe what they're doing now," Ann told her. "They're blowing off the whole mountaintop."

"I said, 'What? How are they getting away with that?'"

Pancake returned to the region to see for herself. What she found was intense poverty and moutaintops that were completely destroyed. "I thought, 'This is a sign that our entire nation is in trouble.' If we as a nation are allowing this level of dire poverty to still exist and then, on top of it, allowing the complete and absolute destruction of acres of mountains around these already decimated communities..." Her voice trails off.

While Pancake had done experimental films, she had not created a documentary before. But when she saw what was going on, she felt compelled to act. "I wanted to document this for the record so that any kid in any library in any school could see that average people are standing up and fighting," she says.

She is interested in the situation as a culturalist as well as an activist. She speaks of an additional problem — drug addiction — that springs, in her opinion, from the sense that the people in Appalachia feel devalued. "By allowing so much mass destruction in the coal fields and not working on economic diversity and not bringing jobs to these people, the government is saying, 'We don't care bout you,'" she says. "And because the country doesn't care about that region, I think the people don't care about themselves as much as they should."

She knows how difficult it is to effect change, especially in this region. "I always felt it would have to come from the outside in," she says. "I look at it like segregation: In order to unlock the political structures and economic structures that are causing this to happen, there has to be pressure from the outside."

Some national organizations like the Sierra Club are now joining forces with the local people.

"People from the left and the right, people from the evangelical movement who believe that the earth is God's creation, are coalescing to move the country away from coal," Pancake says.

Her film focuses on the people who are affected. "We have facts and we have scientists and we have biologists, but we really show the flooding, the blasting, the actual people and the story of the movement," she says. "So when people see that, it makes them want to help."

The movie also highlights the natural beauty of the region and its music as well as its culture and the environmental devastation. "West Virginia is a very beautiful state when it's not blown up," Pancake says.

She hopes the audience will gain a better understanding of what mountaintop removal is and how it directly affects the people in the communities where it is happening. "I want to help people understand the issue in detail and help them understand how to unlock the problem to create change," she says.