For the past 18 years, Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has been the launching point for thousands of documentaries produced by established and emerging filmmakers.
When the festival opens later this week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will be represented as associate professor Chad Stevens of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications premieres his documentary “Overburden.”
Full Frame features more than 100 non-fiction films, discussions and panels every year. Stevens’ film, documenting the war on coal in Appalachia, was selected out of nearly 1,300 submissions to be shown at the prestigious international festival.
After nine years of work, the film will premiere Friday at 10:20 a.m. at the Durham Convention Center.
We caught up with Stevens before the festival:
How long have you been producing films?
“Since the early 2000s I have worked in multimedia and video documentary. I have a covered a wide-range of topics including the impacts of the genocide in Rwanda (“Intended Consequences”), the effects of PTSD on returning soldiers (“Marlboro Marine”) and a community’s efforts to build a wind farm in Appalachia (“In Coal Country, A Community Fights for Wind”) published by National Geographic Magazine.”
What is “Overburden” about?
“’Overburden’ is about two women on opposite sides of the war on coal in Appalachia. One woman, Lorelei, takes a stand to fight the industry after Massey Energy applies for permits to blow up the mountain she lives on to harvest the coal. Betty, a deep supporter of coal in the region, has many family members who work for the industry, including her brother who works for Massey Energy. But these two women find common ground after a tragedy strikes their community. In this moment both characters transform and begin working together to bring change to their community.
Through the stories of these two powerful women, we hope to explore the complicated issues of coal, economy and the people. We want to wipe clean people’s perceptions of what they know of Appalachia and coal miners, and let them connect with these families and ask the complex questions that need to be asked as we, as a country, begin transitioning from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to something more sustainable.”
What inspired you to create “Overburden?”
“Having grown up in Kentucky, I thought I knew Appalachia. I thought I knew what it meant to be a coal miner. I thought I understood the ways in which the land had shaped the people. I thought I knew what it looked like to raise a family there, to provide and to do what’s right. But after beginning this project nearly 10 years ago, I learned that it’s a place of coal and contradictions.
“This film is largely about those contradictions. For those on the outside, like myself, the answers seem easy. Coal is bad. Water is life. Don’t blow up the mountains. What’s hard to see from the outside is the reason folks are so dedicated to the very industry that ultimately, and statistically, ends their lives 10 years earlier than other Americans. This is because the region has been engineered to support only one economy, a coal economy, leaving families with only one option: a job in the coal mine. Even though that very coal company may blow up your land, it’s also the company that signs your paychecks, that gives you health insurance, and that feeds your children. And people fight fiercely to defend their families.
“In the process called mountaintop removal coal mining, “overburden” is a term used to define the rock, soil, trees and ecosystem that lie above a seam of coal. This overburden is blasted and bulldozed away to access the coal be- low. It is shoved into valleys, discarded, much like the people who live and work in those valleys are cast aside. The goal of this film is to humanize those people, to explore the complicated issues and to spark conversation that can move beyond the expected and polarizing debates and allow viewers to access an empathetic view of a people and a place that few Americans truly understand.”
What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of the filming process?
“The most challenging part of this project was time — having patience to stick with it for years to go beyond what other films have explored. I believe it takes time to gain access to tell the real, human stories. That has also been one of the most rewarding parts of the process — to build those relationships that will last over time. I also have to mention that the collaboration goes beyond the film subjects. This project would not be complete, would not be where it is, without the support of our team and producers. Catherine Orr and Elena Rue of StoryMineMedia have been so insightful in the story process. And the help of the Southern Documentary Fund has been critical as well. I’ve learned that you can’t do this alone; it takes a team, and that has also been one of the most rewarding parts of this project — learning to embrace community.”
What will it be like for you to see the film on the big screen?
“I can’t even imagine at this point what it will feel like to see this film, nine years in the making, projected on a big screen at the Full Frame Film Festival. Lorelei and Betty will both be at the screening and we will do a Q&A afterward. It means so much to me that the families will be there. It has been a collaboration from the start, and having them at the premiere will bring that collaboration full circle.”
For more information on Full Frame and to purchase tickets, click here.
Published April 8, 2015.