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Documentary examines W. Va. relationship with coal


Coal has been a part of West Virginia history since before the actual formation of the state.

Which means there has been an uneasy alliance between the people of West Virginia and her natural resource; an alliance that has given many opportunities and purpose, but has taken much in return.

In her latest documentary feature, “King Coal,” West Virginia native and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon examines that relationship.

McMillion Sheldon’s film, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, is a blend of documentary and narrative nonfiction that looks at the ways King Coal has shaped so much of West Virginia’s story. Told through her own narration and the eyes of two young girls from the state, this documentary is a love letter to the resilience of the people of the state. As such, McMillion Sheldon is excited for the West Virginia premiere Saturday at the Culture Center in Charleston.

When asked about bringing her film to her home state that plays prominently in the film, McMillion Sheldon expressed excitement.

“You take (your film) to all of these festivals to build its image, but this is where it matters the most. I’m looking forward to the July 8 screening and the ones that happen in West Virginia elsewhere because this is who the film was made for. Certainly audiences outside of the state are important, but I hope that we did it right by the people who live here.”

McMillion Sheldon has worked both in television and in documentary film. Her 2017 short film “Heroin(e)” focused on her hometown of Huntington and three women working to bring hope to a city ravaged by the opioid crisis. It received a nomination for Best Short Documentary Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

Looking at the hardships of the state while offering hope is a theme for McMillion Sheldon’s work. Facing the crisis of the loss of coal jobs while still remaining hopeful for the future of West Virginia is a theme that runs through “King Coal.” And like “Heroin(e),” “King Coal” examines the role of women in this story of hope.

“When we were looking for people who gave us inspiration or represented resilience, they often were women. It wasn’t necessarily a goal when we set out, but one that was shaped by what’s happening on the ground.”

The use of Lanie Marsh and Gabby Wilson, the young girls in the film, was intentional.

“I wanted to position the viewer in the seat of being a child learning about coal and how early that starts.”
She used dance as a juxtaposition against industry, so she cast the girls from West Virginia dance studios to bring what she calls “magical realism” to the film.

McMillion Sheldon’s connection to coal is personal. Her great-grandparents on through to her brother have all worked in the coal industry.

“It took me leaving and coming back to West Virginia for me to realize that there’s this really strong identity and sense of belonging; that it really was more than a job for the men in my family and for the communities that support miners.”

The premiere begins at 6 p.m. and McMillion Sheldon promises that it will be fun. There will be a catered meal from Fish Hawk Acres, local brews from Short Story Brewing, a jam with local musicians, and a Q&A with the filmmakers and others involved in the movie. Tickets for the event are sold out.

The movie is not currently streaming, but McMillion Sheldon hopes it will be available this fall.