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by Karen Pecota

USA | 2022 Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon directs her latest documentary of the coal mining mountains of Appalachia in KING COAL. Sheldon is a coal miner’s daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter. Her brother is now the fourth generation of coal miners in her family, also known as The King's Men. Sheldon says, "I have had an unusual upbringing where coal has been part of my life since birth. But, before coal, my family was logging and farming. It made the Appalachia hills their livelihood for eight generations."

It seems fitting for Sheldon to embark on fact and imaginative storytelling of a mountain range that has brought prosperity, as well as heartache to the coal mining communities, as our relationship to coal is changing.

Sheldon's voice over narration explains the historical origin of coal in the Appalachians and notes the region was once lush with beautiful vegetation and wildlife. Over time species die and Mother Nature inhabits change. As the earth so dictates its progression of dead things, Coal is formed. This natural resource has value and is discovered to be useful in many ways to mankind. The endless amount of coal in the Appalachia abounds giving credence that coal is the King of these Mountains.

Sheldon shares, "I have been witness to the end of the king's reign but what hasn't lost power is the identity and culture built up around coal mining." This is what allows Sheldon the creative license in her narrative to present a poetic and cinematic journey as to how the mountains that produce coal became King. In reality it still is King, but has lost favor with modern society. Her Papa would say, "Every new beginning starts with a new ending."

Sheldon's documentary began by documenting coal-related traditions and rituals where the coal communities form bonds of kinship through the avenues of pageants, fairs, festivals and memorials. Her storytelling is patient and immersive. She notes, "It doesn't just replace the ugly ideas of Appalachia with beautiful ones, but instead allows the pain and strength to swirl around and allow for a slow absorption of contradictions and irony."

Sheldon's visual observations connecting dreams and reality become relevant with the collaboration of two young dance students, Lanie Marsh and Gabrielle Wilson, as they creatively intertwine their talent with Sheldon's narrative. Sheldon's cinematic magic with KING COAL occurs by using creative artistry in story, as well as with breath artists, choreography, music and sound. It's not to change our country's coal narrative but to embrace it. And, to unpack its historic value leaving unanswered questions for future generations to ponder.