Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Burning the Future" Is My Pick Today

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"Burning the Future" Is My Pick Today


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It's probably a wild guess but I'll say that few of you who aren't employed by Con Ed have been planning to see a documentary about coal this weekend.  But I hope you reconsider because my pick for this week's must-see film is David Novack's Burning the Future: Coal in America. There have been more "electrifying" (a coal pun) titles in the history of the cinema, and on the Learning Channel for that matter, but I immediately could tell this wasn't a dry documentary like we used to watch in social studies and civics classes when I read this one line in the production notes: "Every eleven and one-half days, the explosive equivalent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb is unleashed upon the mountains of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky - for coal."  Since I was born in West Virginia, how could I not watch this film to see what was being done to the Mountaineer state in my absence? What I discovered was a terrific, startlingly enlightening film, populated by some extraordinary, fascinating Appalachian political activists, that every American should see.  The destruction of the majestic landscape, the pollution of streams and drinking water, and the loss of jobs and lives caused by mountaintop removal coal mining to provide us with electricity--all done with the blessing of  the Bush administration--is heartbreaking, and until this film, a well-kept secret.. This week I interviewed David Novack, the deeply committed director who about a film that really is a public service.
Danny Peary: In your bio, I see no West Virginia connection, so where did the idea for
this film originate and when did you become part of the project?
David Novack:  Back in 2002, while doing research for a television series, I met an ecologist from the University of Kentucky, John Cox.  John was conducting a study of mountain elk that had been reintroduced into the wild in the hills of Harlan County.  But in our conversation, it became clear that John had ulterior motives.  It turned out that a coal company had brought in the elk so that reclaimed mountaintop removal sites could be used as hunting grounds.  John was using his research to get access to these sites so that he could test the flora, fauna, soil, and water conditions of these sites. Almost a year later, John called me.  A major federal decision against the coal companies and the corps of engineers had been overturned in circuit court and there was precious little media.  He urged me to come down and see for myself the destruction of the mountains, and speak with residents of the coalfields about their lives, and I did.
DP: Is this your first theatrical documentary?  If so, why do you think it's a good project for a first timer?
DN:  Yes, this is my first theatrical documentary.  I've never given thought as to whether or not it is a good first project.    Maybe it is, and maybe it really isn't.  It certainly presented, and continues to present, huge challenges every step of the way: funding, shooting, editing, and navigating the independent distribution process from festivals to 4-walling one's own theatrical release.  I guess every filmmaker needs a first project
for the learning curve it presents.  This project, I simply couldn't turn away from.
DP: I would think to make as good as film as you did, you would have had to felt passionate (rather than detached) about the subject matter and the desperate activists in your film. Is this true and was an increasingly emotional experience over time as you filmed and put together your film?
DN:  This journey has been very complex for me emotionally.  What I really felt, and still feel, is "connectedness" to all the folks I've met.  I've been angered by the environmental and human abuse.  I've been embarrassed by being essentially an outsider who is as much part of the problem as any American who consumes electricity in ignorance.  I've been deeply moved by the honesty, warmth, trust and courageous determination of the subjects.  I've felt compassion not only for them, but for those who work and make a living in and from the coal industry.  And I remain hopeful that Burning the Future will contribute to a meaningful rethinking of the energy direction of the nation.
DP: Did you feel you were on a mission to get the word out about the devastating effects of mountaintop mining and a burden or responsibility to the people you filmed to get it right and make an impact?
DN: Absolutely.  Responsibility is the key word.  The more the wonderful folks of West Virginia opened their doors and gave me their trust, the deeper that responsibility has become.  My responsibility lies in telling their story, honestly, with all the complications that their very real lives present.  That responsibility carries no burden.  The burden lies in telling their story while making sure not to vilify those who work in and on the mines
and power plants.  They are good people doing incredibly difficult and dangerous work. I've tried to be fair to them.  Just as the activists and victims in the film have the right to be free of the damage caused by the industry, miners have the right not to become "collateral damage" of a change in energy course.  That's the burden, to participate in forging imperative change that doesn't leave anyone behind.
DP: Did you know who you were going to film before you started shooting?
DN: Not at all.  I started filming because I had read about the newly named  baseball team, the West Virginia Power, opening in a new stadium–all branded around energy.  I felt that intersection of Americana, energy and coal hit the heart of the story that I wanted to tell.  This is not just an Appalachian story, it is an American one--we are just ignorant of our connection.  From there and the contacts I made, I began filming people and their stories and let those with particularly filmic storylines emerge.
DP: I thought of Norma Rae as I watched your leading female.  Did you feel that about her?  Was it fascinating to see her and these West Virginia mountain people develop a political/social consciousness?
DN: Truthfully, Maria Gunnoe had already developed her consciousness when we met.  With what had happened to her property and her family, how could she not?  But yes, she is a kind of Norma Rae, up against incredible odds, and today the subject of scare tactics and death threats perpetrated by those fearful of losing their jobs, not understanding that her fight is really theirs too.  What I saw in Maria, however, was pure authenticity.  She obliterates the hillbilly stereotype.  She never apologizes for who she is
or what she stands for.  She is proud of her mixed European/Native American lineage as well as her coal mining heritage.  And she is brilliant.  Others, particularly Donetta Blankenship who had never been on a train before, were only just learning the power of their voice and my hope is that capturing that will help others around the country find their voices in whatever ills  they need to overcome.
DP:  Did the governor and bureaucrats you spoke to, who turned a blind eye to the plight of the people who were being put in harm's way by mountaintop mining, truly believe 100% that they were in the right and that the activists had no real gripes? Or are they just greedy, uncaring people?
DN:  I can't know the answer to that question.  Nothing is 100%.  One thing I have earned is that there are good people, kind and open people, involved in bad things simply because of their circumstances and point of view.  My feeling is that they do feel that the activists have legitimate gripes, but not at the expense of what they believe to be the only true economic powerhouse in the state.  Don't get me wrong, there are some who are probably just greedy or get their power from the coal industry-- but that doesn't apply to everyone.
I hope they see the film, see their voice represented, and find deeper compassion for the other side.
DP: Do the disenfranchised activists have any powerful political forces on their side or are they on their own?
DN:  Absolutely.  There is a ground swell in the country right now that provides a hopeful backdrop for their activities.  If the US is ever going to get serious about global warming, coal is the first place to go to reduce emissions.  The 501 major coal power plants emit 35% of our greenhouse gases, more than 370 million cars.  And there are solutions--efficiency standards in building and appliance codes, robust development of renewable energy, and a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants leading to a significant reduction in coal.  Efforts to fight global warming are gaining political ground in cities, states, and Capitol Hill.  The Governor of Kansas just reversed a decision to permit a new, enormous coal power plant in the face of a smear campaign launched by the coal industry.  She did this on the grounds of public health concern over climate change predications for Kansas.  In addition, with respect to mountaintop removal, there is presently a bill in the house designed to solidify a provision that is already in the Clean Water Act, but that the Bush administration has been able to work around.  That bill now has over 100 sponsors and if passed and enforced, could effectively end mountaintop removal mining.
DP: There is mention of the coal companies and government pitting neighbor against neighbor so that they themselves aren't recognized as the most sensible target for the entire population.  How does that work if all neighbors are becoming sick? Or is it the healthy coal miners with jobs pitted against the unhealthy activists?
DN:  In the Mingo County area, where I followed the dirty water/sickness story, there is less of this because so many folks are sick, and because the preponderance of mining is non-union for Massey Energy.  In this case, it is truly the residents against the coal company.  They are fighting for clean water and an end to underground injection of slurry, which doesn't seem to threaten jobs.  Where Bo and the Marsh Fork Elementary School is, and where  Maria lives in a neighboring county, there is less sickness, less poverty,  and more union mining--the suffering is less obvious, and the activists are fighting to end mountaintop removal mining, which directly employs people who live there.  Here, there are many families who are doing alright because the fathers work in the mines.  And most of the tax dollars that go to the county for schools, services, and charities are from coal.  So it is easy to leverage the fear of job loss to motivate miners to battle the activists.  I find it very telling when one woman at the school says if they "keep on with the mouth, they're going to shut down this school..."  Her protestation is not out of concern for mining and wages, but out of fear of the power of the industry  in their neck of the woods.  It's important, however, to understand that twenty years ago there were 120,000 direct jobs in mining in West Virginia.  Today there are only 15,000.  This is a result of a little more mechanism, a significant reduction in union mines, and a great shift toward mountaintop removal mining, which employs far fewer people and now accounts for 40% of the coal mined in West Virginia.
DP: Is your film advocating traditional coal mining over mountaintop coal mining, or is it advocating a gradual abandonment of coal mining entirely?
DN:  The film advocates traditional, union mining over mountaintop coal mining, and regulations that would prevent the gross slurry contamination of the water table throughout Appalachia.  These are environmental and human crimes.  The DVD, however, goes beyond that.  It addresses global warming and human health effects of coal burning that can't be mitigated without a gradual abandonment of coal as a principal source of electric power.  This is a shift that can be accomplished over several decades, while replacing lost jobs in coal mining areas by locating renewable energy industries in
the various states.  For instance, the mountaintops that already have been blasted are great locations for wind turbines and there are industrial corridors in West Virginia and Kentucky that could be renewable manufacturing sites.
DP: Talk about the scene in Times Square where our heroine yells "Turn Out the Lights!"  I can't tell if it was staged, but nevertheless it's powerful and should rock us ignorant New Yorkers out of our complacency.  We're far away from West Virginia and don't realize what suffering we're causing with our need for electricity.  Do you think most Americans understand electricity comes from coal?  Even if they know that, how little do people think of that?
DN:  I consider myself a generally well-read and educated American.  Six years ago, I had absolutely no idea that our electricity came from coal.  The staggering and shocking truth, more than half our electricity comes from coal, was the revelation that drove me to make the film.  Again, it is about connectedness, and that became the thread of the film.  Before the viewer gets deeply into the stories of suffering and action, they learn this connection and are reminded of it throughout the film.  Americans don't know and don't think about it.  So when the activists came to speak at the UN, I suggested that we visit Times Square and I filmed Maria's reaction.  There were folks who screamed back at Maria in Times Square, "Right On!"  And there were folks who screamed back, "So what! Too bad!"  It remains to be seen how much people will care.  But I'm hopeful.  Our consumption patterns don't need to change significantly.  It's really a matter of not wasting energy, appliance/building efficiency and renewable energy.  We still will be able to plug in our iPods, laptops and cellphones while enjoying healthier air, water, and environmental stewardship.
DP: Why did you choose the title "Burning the Future?"
DN:  The title sums up the problem with coal as an energy source. The facts are clear that coal damages the natural environment in ways that cannot be repaired, and the economic gains of coal extraction are not going back into the communities that are mined--even on a replacement basis. This uneven exchange applies not only to the thousands of streams, mountains and homes that have been permanently lost, but also to jobs and the economy in the affected areas. For example, coal production in the US reached a record 1.1 billion tons in 2006.  At the same time, mining jobs in West Virginia were down from 59,700 in 1980 to 15,200 in 2004. For the people who live in these areas, and for the rest of us who consume this resource, the future environment and economic growth and people's homes are quite literally being burned away.
DP: Are you still in touch with the people in your film?  Are they still activists?
DN: Absolutely.  We speak regularly and their stories continue...I could film forever--it isn't over. 
DP:  When people we've been following get a pipeline delivering clean water, it is a victory, but is there a danger viewers may think their problems are solved?
DN:  I hope the viewers understand that folks who have been consuming toxic water for years are not going to get well because the faucet runs clean.  I hope they understand that the dirty water story is only one piece of this, and that slurry is still being pumped underground everyday and leaching into the water table.  I hope they understand that this is only one community and that the slurry impoundments are scattered throughout Appalachia and there are communities with similar problems.  The purpose of that scene is specifically to show that if you stand up and take action, use your voice,  your organizing and your voting power, you can bring about change.  Billy is a model for leadership, and just a regular guy who loves his family and cares for his community. Beyond getting city water to their sinks, have they achieved everything they are striving for?  Not in the least.
DP: One of your interviewees (a lawyer) talked about the Bush administration changing laws constantly to avoid challenges to what they were doing that was against laws set forth in the Clean Air and Clean  Water Acts.  It's a rhetorical question, but: Doesn't this typify how the Bush administration has avoided challenges to their law-breaking in regard to the environment in general, eavesdropping, Guantanamo Bay prisoners, etc?
DN:  Yes.  The administration has used powers granted to the Office of Management and Budget to make "rule changes" within regulatory laws.  It's been a brilliant tactic for the administration and a very damaging one in many areas.
DP: I was born in West Virginia so I was drawn to your film, but is there a worry that your movie won't have impact because it's just not a "sexy enough" issue?  Or is there hope that this film will be an eye-opener? Is there any way this topic can become a political issue nationally?
DN:  Let's face it.  Coal ain't clean, and it ain't sexy...except in that crazy pro-mountaintop-mining commercial in the film--no one underground looks like those women!  But of course, my hope is that the film will be an eye-opener.  To that end, several organizations have granted support to the film, some before its completion and others after.  These include the Civil Society Institute who has launched a national campaign called CLEAN to build an awareness and action coalition against mountaintop removal mining and extending that to a coal moratorium over several decades.  The Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as Link TV, have become engaged in helping disseminate the film on a national level. Capitol File magazine is helping to launch a Capitol Hill screening that will get the film in the hands of our representatives on the Hill.  Texas Public Citizen is using the film in their fight against newly proposed coal-fired power plants.  This is only a partial list of organizations taking the message under their wing and flying with it.  It's very encouraging.  This is just the beginning.


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