West Virginia's Coal River Valley is beautiful country and perhaps no one knows this better than filmmaker Bill Haney who came to understand the land and the people who live there for his gripping environmental documentary, The Last Mountain. DADA films bought the film at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival following its premier in their U.S. Documentary Competition. It's by the book advocacy docmaking at its best. Haney and his co-writer Peter Rhodes provide face-the-camera interviews, in-depth reporting and a clear sense of intent to describe the process of mountaintop removal mining and its devastating impact on the environment. Last Mountain is one of many environmental documentaries that play festivals and arthouses year after year, and Haney sets it apart and makes it compelling by focusing on the people in the valley as much as the environmental issue. Environmental docs like The Last Mountain are often the most successful at using social media to develop awareness for the film and building online communities of people interested in environmental causes. Its limited theater count will prevent The Last Mountain from achieving the earnings total of a breakout success like An Inconvenient Truth, but producers Uncommon Productions and DADA Films will build a steady audience for it thanks to positive word of mouth and creative online outreach.
Early in the film, Haney shows that the fallout from mountaintop coal removal is substantial: polluted air, soil, water, cancer clusters and toxic sludge and coal dust.
It's clear what side Haney takes with his film. Yet, to the veteran filmmaker's credit, Haney and his crew show the opposing sides on the hot-button topic. Many locals rely on coal companies like Massey Energy for jobs and they understandably side with their employer.
Haney and his crew, including cameramen Jerry Risius, Stephen McCarthy and Tim Hotchner, spend time at Massey Energy company picnics and workers' rallies. They listen to West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney and Massey CEO Don Blankenship. Haney captures the fear of so many West Virginia men and women facing unemployment. It's worth noting that at the time of the film's Sundance premiere, Massey agreed to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources and Blankenship retired.
Still, the film's most rousing moments occur when Haney shows the locals, as well as visiting activists like Bobby Kennedy Jr., the destruction of Coal River Mountain.
The people of Coal River Valley are fighting a local battle, but Haney makes clear by the film's end that the themes that run through their story are timeless and universal. We all want a safe environment and a better world for our children and grandchildren. It's true in Coal River Valley and it's true at our down doorsteps.
Haney also captures a hero worth celebrating in Maria Gunnoe, a woman who comes from a family of miners but who risks her life to stop the destruction of Appalachia's mountains.
Two things linger in one's mind long after the film's closing credits: The Coal River Valley remains a beautiful place despite the environmental destruction that's already occurred, and it's land worth fighting to protect. More importantly, the activists of Coal River Valley are fighting for our quality of life as much as their own.
Distributor: DADA Films
Director: Bill Haney
Producers: Clara Bingham, Bill Haney, Eric Grunebaum
Rating: PG for thematic material and brief content.
Running time: 95 min.
Release Date: June 3 NY/DC, June 10 LA, June 17 EXP.