What happens when the coal runs out?

Special to The Black Mountain News, Black Mountain News

On Sunday, Oct. 9, the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University in partnership with the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will screen an hour-long documentary entitled "After Coal" at White Horse Black Mountain.

The film profiles individuals who are building a new future in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and south Wales. The film will be accompanied by several short documentaries produced by students in the Appalachian Studies program at Appalachian State University.

The featured documentary seeks to answers the questions: What happens when fossil fuels run out? How do communities and cultures survive? "After Coal" invites viewers to the front lines of the transition away from fossil fuels. Coalfield residents who must abandon traditional livelihoods share stories from the front lines of the transition away from fossil fuels.

People in Harlan, Kentucky and other hard-hit former mining towns in Appalachia are reinventing their communities, according to the film "After Coal."

Viewers will meet ex-miners using theater to rebuild community infrastructure, women transforming a former coal board office into an education hub, and young people striving to stay in their home communities. Music plays a major role in this documentary essay, linking eastern Kentucky and south Wales providing cultural continuity that sustains communities through rapid change.

The film's roots reach to 1974, when Appalachian scholar Helen Matthews Lewis spent two years in Wales researching coalfield communities. She, sociologist John Gaventa and filmmaker Richard Greatrex made more than 150 videotapes of daily life in South Wales. The Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University has facilitated more than three decades of exchange between the two regions.

The Welsh coalfields were shut down in the 1980s, eliminating more than 20,000 jobs.  Meanwhile, the Appalachian coalfields lost more than 20,000 mining jobs between 1994 and 2014. Both regions have survived disasters associated with mining production and waste disposal, and each have explored strategies for remembering the past while looking to the future.

For "After Coal," Appalachian State University assistant professor Tom Hansell and cinematographer Suzanne Clouseau interview  entrepreneur Geraint Lewis, about his business "Call of the Wild” near Abercraf, Wales.

“(I wanted to know) what happens to coal mining communities after the mines shut down? Why do some places survive while others become ghost towns?” Tom Hansell, the film's director, said. "As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, these questions are close to my heart. I have a stake in the communities that are facing the limits of our fossil fueled economy.”

“To explore the challenges facing communities in transition, I traveled to South Wales, where most coal mines shut down after the 1984-85 miners’ strike,” Hansell said. "I met inspiring individuals who have fought to rebuild their communities. Their commitment to place reminded me of my friends in central Appalachia. During my travels, I learned that there is not a simple solution to rebuilding coalfield communities. However, the places that survive have diverse leadership, democratic institutions, and support local culture.”

Throughout this documentary, music from the mountains of central Appalachia and the valleys of South Wales reveals the deep bonds that have allowed these two cultures to survive in the harshest of conditions. Hansell believes that comparing the Welsh and Appalachian experience with coal will help people see a future beyond fossil fuels.

  Hansell’s documentary work has been broadcast nationally on public television and has screened at international film festivals. Hansell’s documentary "Coal Bucket Outlaw" was broadcast on public television in 30 states. His most recent documentary, "The Electricity Fairy," screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 and was selected by the SouthArts for the Southern Circuit tour of independent filmmakers. 

"After Coal" is a project of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University.  Fiscal sponsorship for the film was provided by The Southern Appalachian Labor School and the Southern Documentary Fund. "After Coal" is funded in part by the Chorus Foundation, West Virginia Humanities Council, and United States Artists.

The documentary will be screened along with student films from the Appalachian Studies Program at Appalachian State University at the White Horse Black Mountain, 105c Montreat Road at 3:00pm on Sunday, October 9. Admission is free and donations are accepted for the Beaver/White Scholarship Fund, which provides support for Appalachian Studies students to research topics related to the Appalachian region.