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Catherine Pancake On the Impact of Black Diamonds, Her 2006 Film About Mountaintop Removal

February 23, 2010
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The devastation wrought by mountaintop-removal mining was brought into tight focus by Catherine Pancake of Baltimore (a native West Virginian), with the 2006 release of her documentary Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice, to which CP devoted a cover story that year. The film went on to win numerous awards, but probably deserved many more.

Prior to Black Diamonds, Pancake, a filmmaker and musician, was known mostly in Baltimore for helping to found the Red Room Collective, the High Zero Foundation, the Charm City Kitty Club, and the Transmodern Festival. Now she is also a celebrated truth-teller in the environmental movement, and her efforts to create understanding of mountaintop removal have paid off—with pending federal legislation, attributable to a broad awareness of the problem among activists.

The pending bill in Congress is U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s (D-Md.) Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696), which was introduced nearly a year ago. The bill would amend the Clean Water Act to curtail the disposal of coal-mining waste into streams, and was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, where it has languished ever since. The National Mining Association opposes it, and an array of environmental groups supports it.

There’s no way to predict when or if the committee will report the bill out for floor votes, but the fact that it has been proposed at all can safely be attributed, in part, to Black Diamonds and Pancake’s hard work and dedication to getting it screened around the country.

In a recent e-mail, Pancake answered CP‘s questions about Black Diamonds‘ impact on the national discussion of mountaintop removal:

“This helpful piece of legislation [The Appalachia Restoration Act] is needed to resolve the misguided feeling that the problems of mountaintop removal are ‘local’ and revolve around a jobs-vs.-the-environment debate that the rest of the U.S. should stay out of. Early in my work on mountaintop removal, I began comparing the situation to racial segregation and the need for national leadership to transcend petty local politics and the very, very real intimidation tactics perpetrated by the coal industry on these vulnerable communities and their political leaders.

“These tactics range from physical attacks and death threats to whisper campaigns designed to harm small businesses and economic development that does not revolve around coal. We are long past the point where federal leadership should have stepped in.

“It’s very difficult to articulate the inhumanity and injustice of living in an area (or coming from an area) where the coal industry is essentially ‘in occupation’ and systematically blowing up the ecosystem. The sense of almost military occupation is heightened by coal company uniforms, massive equipment and trucking systems, armed guards at mine sites, and a complete Glenn Beck ‘us-vs.-them’ mentality that is groomed and enforced as part of company culture.

“You sort of have to be there to believe it. Strong federal guidance (even symbolically) can help loosen up the situation and embolden the affected citizens, mainly to assist with actual economic and cultural development that is badly needed.

“I feel Black Diamonds had a specific function in taking the issue to a more national level. Black Diamonds was the first documentary to focus on actual video footage taken by local people about what they were actually experiencing and contextualize that with the science/legal issues bigger picture. The film also showed a range of local citizens instead of focusing on just one family. This was helpful in emboldening the activists and other groups that the problems were extensive, frameable, and legitimate. They were sort of working in a vacuum down there, and when I first began showing the documentary, the activists and citizens became extremely fired up, stating over and over things like, ‘Wow! We are really doing something! This is important!’ It helped me really understand the importance of narrative media in new way.

“Other environmental groups stated that they were blown away by the documentary at that time—having heard about mountaintop removal, but having not seen the entire case laid out in detail. So, the film was not meant as an aesthetic statement, or a way to tell a cool story, but more as a ‘shock troops’ piece to get the ball rolling.

“I was pretty fearless about taking a stand and that really helped motivate people who needed a nudge. We did over 100 screenings in person from 2006 to 2008, many times to sold-out crowds in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Other people also screened the documentary on their own. I believe this was critical in getting the movement booted to a larger scale. The Rainforest Action Network also was an early supporter of Black Diamonds, and they have become very integral to the anti-coal movement nationally.

“So, I don’t think Black Diamonds was a film that necessarily brought the situation to the average American, but it served as a tool to provide an initial shock and activist-motivation tool. Taking this role was pretty exhausting and not very glamorous.

“We did win a range of important awards and were able to take the activists to the Museum of Modern Art—that was probably the high point for me as an artist. We are still selling the DVD through our distributor and I continue to get screening requests, but there are several more films out now, which is good.

“The film was broadcast in the U.S. by Free Speech TV, and is being broadcast in the U.K. on the CommunityChannelUK.

“Did it help? There is significantly more discussion about reducing harm and economic alternatives beyond coal happening now at the federal level. Black Diamonds was a small sliver in this plank for sure, due to the grassroots success, but also some contacts I made with higher-level lobbyists who used the piece in D.C. to embolden people at a higher level helped.

“I was working on a follow-up piece on a new group of activists trying to use wind energy to fight mountaintop removal. However, there are so many people trying to make documentaries on the subject at this point, it became a bit like [the 1992 Belgian mockumentary] Man Bites Dog. I would continually run into other crews, the subjects were getting confused, and I wasn’t getting the level of information I needed because the activists were constantly juggling three or four other journalists or documentary folks. Also, major funding was being directed to other national wind-energy documentaries that I thought probably were covering it OK. So I stopped feeling a sense of urgency about it.

“Also, I’m moving more toward fictional narrative work creatively at the moment. I’m still in touch with my wind-energy folks, but no plans for anything other than a short piece at this time.”

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