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“Cinema Can Be a Mode for Grieving”: Elaine McMillion Sheldon Discusses ‘King Coal’

By Alex Lei

Two young girls playing together against a backdrop of mountains, weeds, and mounds of dirt.

Though staying in her home region of Appalachia, documentarian Elaine McMillion Sheldon departs from her vérité beginnings in her latest feature, King Coal. Coming from three generations of coal miners, Sheldon has a personal interest in the wakes left behind from the industry that built the region, previously investigating the rise of black lung in her PBS Frontline/NPR collaboration “Coal’s Deadly Dust” (2019) or shining a light on the battle against the opioid crisis in her Oscar-nominated short film Heroin(e) (2017). But while collecting footage of rituals surrounding the legend of coal, Sheldon realized she needed a more abstract approach. Blending documentary footage with lightly staged and heavily improvised sequences involving non-actor locals, King Coal is an Appalachia symphony film tied together with poetic narration from the director herself, another first in her career. 

An immersive audio/visual experience, King Coal was designed to be seen on the big screen with an audience. Alongside a theatrical run in NY that started on August 11, the film will be playing next at the inaugural New/Next Film Festival, which sprung up to fill a void left by the Maryland Film Festival announcing the cancellation of the 2023 event. New/Next seeks to bring the most exciting developments in independent film to Baltimore, a city with only one currently operating arthouse theater. In anticipation of the upcoming screening, I talked to Sheldon about hybrid filmmaking, the mythologizing of coal, and how the process of filmmaking can be a mode for communal grieving. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: In King Coal, you have this fiction element that's new to your filmmaking, where we see the film partially through the eyes of a young girl growing up in Appalachia. When did you realize that you needed that perspective in there?

ELAINE MCMILLION SHELDON: Kids worked their way in pretty early on. One of the first scenes we filmed was in the classroom with those kids touching the piece of coal, and what was really evident early on was that this was a story they were being handed. If we were asking a question of what's our next story, it made sense to look at the kids and what they wanted. And then because the film became so much about personal memory, my own memories—I narrate the film and talk about my own memories—it started to also feel important to see a kid actually go through some of these things that I went through, which were questions of leaving, staying, and participating in coal culture.

D: I want to talk about the sound design as well. It seems like even the non-diegetic sounds in the film could be coming from the environment in some way. Before we even see an image in the film, there's this rumbling and then this whistle, and it's not really clear if it's thunder or something going on in the mines or if the whistle's a person or a bird song. 

EMS: We wanted this to be just as much of a sound experience as a visual one, and obviously, a lot of credit for the visual goes to DP Curren Sheldon. But sound was its own beast, and it was one of the reasons why I was so excited to work with Iva Radivojević, my editor, who also emphasizes sound in her films. Going back to what people think of in the region, we think of it as a place oftentimes—if you don't have personal experience with it—that's empty, that's sort of reached the end of its story. And we just felt that it being teeming with life was both natural and human and would be an important part of the audio experience.

In the early days, we thought of the sound design as occupying two worlds, one we jokingly called “Westylvania,” which is this combination of mining towns and the kingdom. It was very mechanical, so you hear elements of machines and things that are very non-human. The other world is sort of this post-coal landscape, such as when the film transports from the mine, where we're hearing this deep rumble into the forest, where we're hearing the creaking of the trees. The aliveness of the world and how the sound itself can show how much life there's still to be lived here was really important.

D: The making of this film seems to be something of a community project. There's the bookending on either side of it with the funeral march and, at the very end, all the speeches. Was that a scripted sequence?

EMS: That's my favorite thing I've ever done as a filmmaker, and previously, I would've never thought that that would be something I would do, where I would randomly find 80 people and say, “Do you want to hold a funeral for King Coal?” I was so nervous to ask people, and what was incredible is that upon asking that question, the number of people who said, “Absolutely. This is exactly what we need to be doing” was so affirming. I've made films for the past 10 years with the thought that you make the film first and then, after the fact, you try to reach the community with impact, whether it's through an educational guide, a screening, or a panel.

We did all the prep in the beginning, and it was like putting on an event. Once it started, we had one chance to capture everything. We had three cameras, three sound people, and we just let it go, and people came up one by one and gave their eulogies. Heather Hannah, who gives her eulogy at the end, wrote hers 15 minutes before we walked up the hill. We had no clue what she was going to say, I had never met her before that day, and she essentially wrote the end of the film for us. It was so moving because we were sitting there watching this all go down on top of this hill, hoping that the lightning and thunder don't catch up with us. She had not seen a single frame of the film, but she absolutely understood the purpose and entire ethos of what we were doing. That's when we brought her on as a contributing writer to give us feedback on the final narration.

D: Is Heather the one who said, “Now they've come to mine the memories”?

EMS: Yeah.

D: I felt like that was like the thesis of the film stated.

EMS: My God, I know. It was unbelievable. I'm not joking when I say I was bawling when she was talking. I had chills. It was like everything we were trying to say with the film all wrapped up in this speech that she was giving, and she had just written it. I mean, she's a singer-songwriter from Thomas, West Virginia. This isn't the first time she's thought about this sort of question of what we do. She's quite eloquent, and she's also a coal miner's daughter. It was an incredible moment when I realized that film and cinema can be a tool not just for making art and beauty or having some “impact” but also can be a mode for grieving, moving on, and mourning. 

D: So much of this film is about the ritual that's surrounding the decline of coal. There are all these festivals and recreations of the old days, and it seems to me like that final sequence is you applying that ritual to the craft of filmmaking itself.

EMS: Absolutely. We took a lead from the community itself on how to move forward. That's my grandpa in the film, who is an actual gravedigger in real life, looking back on burial traditions of the past, asking what are the things that this community has already done or has done in the past that have allowed them to move forward in some way. And so the rituals—all the film is a study of rituals—that people do at these festivals led us to design this event that we did so that it would be something that would be familiar but also challenging. 

D: What do you hope the impact of it will be on the community going forward?

EMS: I hope it's a reminder. I don't really feel like anything I'm saying is necessarily new to the people here, but the collection and the challenges of saying that felt like a personal risk. Even making this film felt like a betrayal in some ways to my community. Something I think we have to get over as a region is the idea that we're, in some ways, betraying one another by speaking the truth.

I live in Knoxville, and when I go to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I find out about filmmakers who were doing what I was doing, but in the '50s or '30s, and poets that are doing what I was doing now, but they were doing it in the '70s. We're all telling the same story and saying the same thing for our age. I feel really, really satisfied that this film represents this time and place right now in this region that's so meaningful to me. This feels like a big honor to be able to bring forward in a film because I don't think most people are used to seeing the region this way. I feel like I'm standing on the shoulders of a lot of other poets, authors, filmmakers, and writers who have inspired me throughout my entire life to speak the truth about this place, even if it's painful.

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker based in Baltimore.