(USA, 78 min.)
Dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Programme: NEXT (World Premiere)
When you hear the words “poetic documentary,” you may, like me, be very wary about what’s to come. Such works can be indulgent, meandering, tedious, and self-important to the point of annoyance. However, director Elain McMillion Sheldon almost blissfully takes us on a journey through the milieu of our youth to see the scarred landscape of coal country in an entirely new way.
To King Coal’s immense credit, the film is neither a diatribe nor a somber paean to a lost sense of community. It’s instead a firm recognition of the varying circumstances and competing interests that saw entire ecosystems of people emerge around locations rich with fossil fuels waiting to be mined. The extraction of coal from the mountains of West Virginia is already the stuff of cinematic legend – Sheldon herself admits to taking to heart Loretta Lynn’s epic tale of being a coal miner’s daughter – and here the filmmaker both questions the myth and embraces it simultaneously, a quite magical balancing act that gives King Coal much of its charm.
We follow precocious youngsters as they serve as guides to the sites of the land, cutting out reports to affix to Bristol board as part of a school project illustrating all that once was in abundance. There’s a calmness to the rivers where giant barges transport the black rocks. We see lumps gleaned from tributaries off the main run, the rocks then crushed and used as material for painting.
The environmental devastation caused locally is touched on far more than what the burning of these rocks does globally, but that is at least tacitly recognized in some of the more sombre moments, noting the millions of years of sedimentation that’s turned from mountain ridge to toxic product.
Even more thorny issues are touched upon, from the role of organized labour that began in such locales, but also how that same union wasn’t always equitable for its varied membership. All these aspects are considered gently and without recrimination, allowing the film to dive deeply while never feeling self-serving or strident.
It’s these contradictory aspects that fuel the film – labour movements that fought harder for some over others, the human ingenuity of extraction versus the cost to the environment, and so on. The cultural aspects of company life resulted in a comradery that’s palpable, but it also caused a claustrophobic myopia that makes change all that more challenging. West Virginia’s coal industry is a tiny percentage of what it once was, losing a huge percentage since its heyday during the Second World War. Yet the mythology of the miner, and the way that its veins run as deep in the culture as the tracks that are cut into the earth do, makes this more than simple nostalgia.
At the same time, Sheldon’s journey isn’t simply nostalgic or bitter about the change. The film’s strength lies in how it navigates both the past and present, the local and the international, digging into these various aspects through a welcoming journey through the countryside. Town gatherings are captured with almost anthropological precision, while a classroom visit of a mucked-up former miner is both poignant and kind of preposterous. Yet again, King Coal manages to be both at once, for the better.
King Coal may be on his last breath as the world moves inexorably beyond the need for the ore in “them there hills,” but the effect of his reign continues to resonate not only in these small West Virginia towns, but around the world. Thanks to this unique vision that goes beyond the simple headlines or prejudices about the area, Sheldon’s poetic documentary is both welcoming and wonderful.
King Coal premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Update (02/01/2024): King Coal has its Toronto premiere on Feb. 7 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of the Doc Soup series.