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Elaine McMillion Sheldon on her documentary 'King Coal.'


Elaine McMillion Sheldon's new film defies labels. It's about the reign of king coal in Appalachia, and she knows the territory. She's a filmmaker with many awards - a Peabody, Emmys, an Oscar nomination. She is also from a fourth-generation coal mining family. And her documentary is part poetry, part imagery, history and storytelling about the hold of coal on people's lives, fortunes and dreams, like when a coal miner stands before youngsters in a classroom.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I picked up my shovel, and I walked to the mines.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: I picked up my shovel, and I walked to the mines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I loaded 16 tons of No. 9 coal.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: I loaded 16 tons of No. 9 coal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the straw boss said, well, bless my soul.

SIMON: Elaine McMillion Sheldon joins us now from Knoxville, Tenn. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELAINE MCMILLION SHELDON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Help us understand the hold that coal has on the lives of people you know and grew up with.

MCMILLION SHELDON: Well, I think from an outsider's point of view, it's a job, and it's a dwindling job. And so when we just look at facts and figures alone, we don't see the full story of coal. But locally on the ground, in the coalfields, the feeling is much more one of identity, belonging and community. And I think we can partially attribute that to the fact that this has been a historically very dangerous job for people, and they've risked a lot to do this job. And there's been a lot of pride wrapped up in this job for fueling the industrial revolution and much more. And so as years have dwindled in employment, that culture has hung on.

SIMON: Yeah. Quite an anecdote in this film where you remember coming up behind your grandfather once. What happened?

MCMILLION SHELDON: Yeah, well, this is true for most of the men in my family who worked in the coal mines. But you learn not to sneak up behind them. And as a kid, you know, often playing pranks, I snuck up behind my grandpa once and scared him and saw his face turned white as a ghost. And he asked me not to sneak up on him anymore. And I learned later in life it's because miners work in these conditions where every single sound, vibration, smell is a marker that their life is on the line. So even their grandchild sneaking up behind them can scare them to death.

SIMON: You've got a high school, it looks like, football game in this film that I'd like to get you to tell us about, because I found that to be just a stunning sequence, beginning with the fact that the game is played on a flat field that used to be the side of a mountain, right?

MCMILLION SHELDON: Yeah, exactly. So that scene takes place actually on what's called the King Coal Highway, and it's in Mingo County, W. Va. And the Mingo Miners - that's their mascot. They're the Miners. On their way out of the locker room, they touch a piece of coal. And that coal itself was mined from the mountain that used to be there that's now flattened. That's where the school was built, and that's where the football field was built. But it was a strip mine, through the process of mountaintop removal was made into a highway. And so these Miners, Mingo Miners, touch this piece of coal on their way out, sort of like a lucky rabbit's foot. And I would say, you know, this film is not your traditional documentary with talking heads. The way we chose to tell this story and finding a new way to tell a new story was inspired by many of these rituals you see on the ground 'cause so many of them feel magical in their own way.

SIMON: I wonder what you say to people who would say, well, you know, this is an industry that's bad for this world at this point.

MCMILLION SHELDON: I don't think anyone is in disagreement about whether we need to move on from polluting the world with fossil fuels. I think the question is who's left out of that moving on and how can we gracefully do it so that those who sacrificed the most in what we call progress in this country and in this world to make others' lives more comfortable are not left behind? I think that will only further breed resentment and make people be forced to be stuck into the past.

SIMON: In the film, you note you sometimes felt you were betraying family loyalties if you said anything bad about the coal industry.

MCMILLION SHELDON: Yeah, and in the film I even say that as a kid I learned to be quiet. I'm still learning. Clearly I'm - I haven't learned. But this film felt like a personal risk to me. It felt like a personal risk to the people that I love. I didn't want to alienate them, but it required me to sort of dig into my own memories and ask hard questions and be more vulnerable.

SIMON: Yet there's no mistaking the affection and admiration that you have for people who have given their lives to coal.

MCMILLION SHELDON: Absolutely. I guess I don't know how to be any other way. There's no reason to deny the dignity of people who have just been working the job that was available to them. And I don't know a single miner in the region that wouldn't do another job if it didn't pay the same and allowed them to live at home close to family. I think that that's something that's often missing in this conversation, is how do we move forward with jobs that pay us well, but also allow people to live in these mountains that they feel so deeply connected to?

SIMON: Is there a feeling of importance, of counting for something special in this world that was all tied up in being a coal miner?

MCMILLION SHELDON: I think so. I think that it was, you know, not only created in Appalachia, but also we saw war propaganda from World War II comparing miners to soldiers. You know, you were not drafted for the war in World War II if you dug coal for the war. That was considered your duty. And so I think there's just been a drastic change of the importance of this job and the pride that comes with that and the loss of that. And that hasn't been felt for generations, but the culture of that has been felt. And I also think there's an element of play where, you know, politically we've been told that we're nothing if we lose this king, that if this king is to abandon us, if we don't have this, we have nothing to offer. You know, I even remember a kid when I was making the film, she said if we didn't have coal, all we'd have would be these mountains. And yeah, people would think we were beautiful, but we wouldn't be important. And I think that that's a really hard thing to overcome.

SIMON: What do you hope happens to this landscape that you love and the people you love?

MCMILLION SHELDON: I grew up in the coalfields wanting to leave and in some ways being embarrassed of my region because that's how I always felt I was supposed to feel. Anytime I saw my region depicted on radio or television or in magazines, it was embarrassing. And I never thought I would come back, but here I am, and I love this region, and I see a future for this region. And I just hope that the people here haven't been beaten down to the point to where I know what it feels like to lose your own agency, to lose your own voice and feeling like you're told you're nothing, that you have nothing to offer. So this film is really, as much as it can be, full of hope and reminders of resilience, to put coal back in the earth, to not make it our king and to see the other riches among us - and that includes our human resources as well, the people around us that have lived through this incredible rule and that are going to be the only hope on the other side to get us out of it.

SIMON: Elaine McMillion Sheldon's new film, "King Coal," opens in select theaters this month. Thank you so much for being with us.

MCMILLION SHELDON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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