Prove your humanity

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It’s been called a ghost story, and it’s about the death of coal as the dominant industry in Appalachia. Filmmaker and director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s latest film, “King Coal,” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year and has been screening in select theaters throughout the country, including at Pittsburgh’s Lindsay Theater, on Sept. 10 and 14.

Glynis Board met up with Sheldon at a sold-out screening at the Harris Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

LISTEN to their conversation

Glynis Board: Online, your film is described as “a lyrical tapestry of place and people, ‘King Coal’ meditates on the complex history and future of the coal industry, the communities it has shaped, and the myths it has created.” So tell me, does this film have an agenda?

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: An agenda to bring dignity? I’m kind of always on a path to complicate things a little bit. I’m not interested in oversimplifying whatever solutions we have about our Beyond Coal future. I think it’s going to be a very complex journey that we’re going to be on. And so I didn’t want this film to be the film that’s providing the solutions but instead is actually providing the step that comes before the solutions, which is the conversation and the mourning, the grieving of the past.

And I don’t know that we’ve really taken the proper time to do that, because it’s not until we say goodbye to the old story that we can work on the new one.

And so if there is an agenda, it’s to remind people of our shared resilience and humanity and the fact that, yes, we have this natural resource that has gone all over the world and changed lives, but we also have a lot of other resources, including humans, and our imaginations, and what we want for our lives here that maybe are going untapped that we need to remember. So, my agenda is imagination.

Board: You’ve talked about grieving and how important grieving is. You said grief is necessary for positive change. Can you speak a little bit more on that?

McMillion Sheldon: I think this film was me grieving in some ways — grieving with my own family, with my community — allowing a space to accept change. And change is inevitable, but we resist it. And our resistance to it denies our ability to process it. And I think grieving is seen as something that is also often associated with negative feelings. But there’s a real release in the grief and saying and looking back on the generations, “Thank you for what you’ve done. Now it’s time for us, whatever that is.”

And there’s a liberation in the grieving that I think this next generation really needs to do in a respectful way because that’s really the tension, I think — that people feel left behind and unseen in a transition movement without being recognized for sacrificing their own health or the environment, all these things that have been given up.

My papa is in the film. He’s a grave digger in real life. So he mined coal for his life, and now he digs graves and has buried everyone from his mom to his wives and everyone in my family. And so I’ve grown up around grieving and mourning as a service, a community service like this. That’s how he plays a role in his community. It’s how he’s helpful to people. And so I think turning it a little bit — not seeing grieving as the end, but as the beginning — is the point of the film.

Two girls dance in front of mounds of coal.

McMillion Sheldon departs from strict verité filmmaking style in “King Coal” by casting two young West Virginian dancers who the film follows through Appalachian coal landscapes and scenery. Photo: Curren Sheldon / King Coal

Board: You’re from one of the pockets of the world, in the country, that produces metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. And here we are in Pittsburgh. It’s fueled this whole region. And you did take some time to film here in southwestern Pennsylvania and in Pittsburgh. Can you tell us what brought you here and about that?

McMillion Sheldon: When we started filming, the first things we found were coal-related cultural scenes. So my co-producer, Molly Born, and I were going around schools, filming presentations that people were doing about coal, coal education fairs, the Miss Bituminous Coal Queen Pageant, which is in Carmichaels, Pa.

And then at a certain point, the film started morphing away from just being observations to where we cast two local dancers from West Virginia. They would be the vehicle in which we would learn coal history through. They were 11 years old when we cast them and we felt that it was important to see it through a kid’s eyes. So as one of those things, we took them on a field trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the Benedum Hall of Geology because there’s a massive coal exhibit there. And we filmed in the Laurel Highlands, a trout fishing scene.

So yeah, Pennsylvania played a role in that.

Community attends ‘Calling Hours,’ a memorial for its deceased coal plant

I think it’s really one of the things that my dad told me recently that I wasn’t aware of was: We’re in Pittsburgh right now — almost all of Pittsburgh underneath is like a honeycomb. It’s been mined under. It’s sitting on the Pennsylvania coal bed, and that same coal bed runs all the way down to Kanawha County, West Virginia. So if you were to connect all these little mines, you could walk underground from Pittsburgh to southern West Virginia, which is an amazing thing to think about.

And we move forward with progress, as we should, and we forget that that’s literally the foundation. And my brother still works for a coal company in McDowell County that they mined metallurgical coal. So this is something that I obviously think a lot about, but I’m not sure everybody does.

And so I was really excited to see this screening sell out because it tells me that people here in Pittsburgh are still connected in a sense, this identity and pride in that even though there’s been progress and innovation, which I fully embrace, we haven’t left behind the history completely, which I think is really important in any reinvention of the past.

Board: But this film is a bit of a transition for you. What changed? You typically shoot verité filmmaking styles, which is capturing scenes as you find them. But this film has constructed scenes; you narrate as a miner’s daughter, there’s incorporated choreography. One critic says it “transcends documentation and evolves into cinematic art.” So what shifted to create this different style?

McMillion Sheldon: None of that was intentional. I didn’t set out to make an “arty” film, for lack of a better word. I just think I realized the limits of observation when it came to telling the story. Because this story was something we could observe — sort of. We could observe rituals. We could observe myths and how they play out. But the actual underpinnings of the way they’re felt was not something you can see. And so this film required sort of a personal excavation of my own memories and staging these things that felt like they were getting to the things felt, not just seen.

And so it was a question of what cinematic tools do we have available to us to be creative, to tell these stories that are going untold because they’re felt, not seen?

Part of it was trying to defy a bit of expectations about the region. So, our score is completely percussion. There’s no old-time music, which is what you would think coming into a film about Appalachia. And that was a very conscious decision. We worked with people that do breath art. His name is Dominic “Shodekeh” Taliferoso. With his human body, he makes the sound of thunder and crickets.

And so, we just tried to pull as many creative minds into the film and make it as collaborative as possible because the film itself is breaking the documentary tradition and my rules of making documentaries. So it’s trying to do something that I’ve never previously tried to do before.

Board:  So interesting in that way. It’s sort of a metaphor for life in Appalachia right now, and it’s sort of like a statement from you personally on so many levels.

It did feel that way. I think, in some ways, I was channeling the fear of that. Like, it’s so much easier in your career to keep doing what you’re good at, right? You get really good at something, and so rinse and repeat — ways to make money and get jobs. If you’re just doing that, it’s way riskier to just go off the ledge and do something totally different. People may not get it. But it is kind of where we are in the region. We kind of need to think outside the box. And so, yeah, it did become sort of my own way of modeling vulnerability.

The sun sets as a girl, cast in shadow, climbs a tree under a big blue sky.

McMillion Sheldon said her latest documentary, “King Coal,” seeks to complicate the Appalachian narrative as the region transitions from a coal-dominated economy to something else. Photo: Curren Sheldon / King Coal

Board: Would you venture a speculation about what comes next in Appalachia for this community that’s transitioning (away from coal)? 

McMillion Sheldon: I don’t know exactly what comes next in terms of what our solutions are. I just feel really strongly that we personally have to build ourselves back up. And while it’s not fair when you look back on the history, it’s truly not a place we should be in, given how much money has been made here to enrich this world — it also now is kind of up to us. Nobody’s going to save us. We know that. And that’s both paralyzing and empowering, I think. So I don’t know. I don’t know what the solution is. But I’m hopeful that the land will play a role in it, people’s relationships and communities will play a role in it. And I hope that despair just hasn’t taken over to the point where telling these stories is impossible.

I don’t think it is. I think we still can dream.

Filmmaker and director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s latest film is “King Coal.”