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BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN (2016) review

November 27, 2016

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written by: Mari-Lynn C. Evans, Jordan Freeman, Phylis Geller,
Matthew Sanchez & Deborah Wallace
produced by: Mari-Lynn C. Evans, Deborah Wallace and Jordan Freeman
directed by: Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman
rated: unrated
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: November 18-24, 2016 (NY/LA), December 2, 2016 (Houston, TX) & December 9-15, 2016 (Washington D.C.) 

 

I’ve worked plenty of jobs that I thought were killing me, but none of them were literally ending my life. I can’t imagine going to work each day knowing there’s a possibility that I could die. Now, I’m aware there are plenty of jobs where this could happen, but I usually envision them as occupations where the expectation is to protect, serve or save a life.”Blood on the Mountain” focuses on the coal industry, specifically in West Virginia, shining a light in the darkness on the kind of job that has killed the hard-working, and often misunderstood, coal miners for decades. This eye-opening documentary, directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, looks at the plight of these workers, as well as the economic and environmental injustices that developed due to corporate interests and control. It’s an upsetting, exhaustive and searing look at a population of people living to work and working to live, yet getting very little out of life. 

“Blood on the Mountain” may be one-sided, like many documentaries, but the side it is telling focuses on a people plagued by long-term poverty, political corruption, devastating lack of health care and inadequate education systems. It is a side that desperately needs to be told. Many in the coal community have lived and (unfortunately) breathed coal their entire lives in this area and as the production of this valued natural resource generated billions of dollars, most of that money went to companies in other states, leaving the region in dire straits. West Virginians who live near and work in the mines have not only been victims of tragic accidental deaths (most of which could’ve been prevented) and fatal respiratory illnesses like black lung, but have also had to deal with continuous political corruption and bankruptcy of the corporations they’ve been dependent on for their livelihood.

The film is set in the beautiful mountain ranges and lush forests of Appalachia, an area in America both Evans and Freeman have become well-versed in. Evans had produced the 2009 documentary “Coal Country” and prior to that the PBS series “The Appalachia” from 2005. Jordan had served as cinematographer on “Coal County” as well as the 2013 documentary “Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story,” about mountain top removal in Appalachia. All of their experiences and immersion in Appalachian coal mining country prepared Evans and Freeman (who co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed) to provide a focused and extensive look at life for the coal mine workers and their families in West Virginia and the complex moral and economic issues the industry has produced.

 

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2008, file photo is a mountaintop removal coal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 11, 2009, announced steps to reduce the environmental destruction caused in six states by mountaintop coal mining. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, FILE)

 

It happens to be a timely documentary considering President-Elect Trump pledged on the campaign trail to increase the amount of coal industry jobs, but “Blood Mountain” posits that the oversimplified  ‘more jobs’ response isn’t sufficient. There are methods, such as mountaintop-removal that have been implemented, in an effort to reduce intensified labor and underground mining, but the effects of this approach have proved to be devastating to the region’s geography and the well-being of the people who live in and around these mountains.

The film does an amazing job at providing history and background of the industry in this part of the country, using informative reflections from talking heads and impacting archival black-and-white footage from the late 1800s.  During that time, coal was an inexpensive and abundant ‘miracle fuel’, which lead to the U.S. becoming the leading industrial country in the world, states Davitt McAteer, former head, Mine Safety Health Administration, “and coal became king.” It’s an industry that develops in a rural setting, where the land is rich with  – the remoteness led to control over the town and the people.

“Blood on the Mountain” lays out a thorough timeline of all the accidents and deaths that have taken place in the region’s mines, due to either safety oversights or work-related illnesses that have developed over time like black lung and cancer. In November 1968, an explosion at the Farmington Mine Explosion killed 78 workers, which started several new laws designed to protect miners. In 1972, there was a disastrous flood in Buffalo Creek (located in Logan County in W.V.), which killed 125 and injured 1121, leaving 4000 people homeless, after the Pittston Coal Impoundment ruptured, releasing a flow of black waste water upon sixteen coal towns below. Pittston referred to the disaster as an “Act of God”.

Then there was the Sago Mine Explosion in January 2006, which killed 12 miners, and then, less than 2 weeks later another explosion, a belt line fire, occurred in Aracoma Mine, killing two miners. Massey agreed to pay $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties for the accident, making the settlement the largest in the coal industry’s history. In April 2010, there was the Upper Big Branch Explosion, in which Massey owned Performance Coal Co. mine, located in Montcoal, West Virginia, resulted in the deaths of 29 miners. At the time, it was deemed the worst mining disaster in 40 years, with a greater loss of life than any mining accident since the 1970s. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released its final report in 2011, concluding that flagrant safety violations contributed to a coal dust explosion. Since then, no significant changes to mine safety laws have been made.

Back in the day, companies would build ‘coal houses’ near the mine, homes for the miner families to live. These homes were provided by the corporation buying the coal, in a way to provide for the workers, who would work “literally from dark to dark”, shares Richard Tumka, president of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), “there wasn’t adequate air, there wasn’t adequate ventilation. If you killed a man you were okay, if you killed a mule, you got fired cuz they had to buy mules – men were free. Human life was never given the proper priority that it should’ve been given.” Tumka provides one of many vital insights in the film, contributing to a very poignant and needed human element.

 

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Adding that human element without following any one particular person is one of the impressive aspects of “Blood on the Mountain”. We get a feel for the struggles the workers and their families have gone through as well as their way of life, but none of them are the talking heads we see. Most of them are administrators, union reps, and attorneys who speak out against companies like Massey Energy, which was at one time the fourth largest producer of coal in the U.S., specifically from Kentucky, Virginia and Southern West Virginia, until it was bought out by Alpha Natural Resources in 2010. Former Massey CEO, Don Blankenship, who believed “If you have a kid, do your job”, is featured heavily in the film as the chief villain, since Massey was known for favoring the tons of millions it would accrue annually over the safety or its employees. Blankenship and Massey are one of many systemic problems the coal industry has. They are symptoms that present themselves as the good guy, out to convince miners they have their best interest in mind, but they are simply a slave to the illness of corporate greed and financial gain.

But regardless of Massey’s unsafe practices, there were (perhaps, are) still miners and their families loyal to Blankenship and his company. It’s baffling, yet understandable since coal is all they know. Well, they also know the pain and struggle of watching their loved ones become ill or die. Supporting the miners, was the Union Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who, at one time represented over 500, 000 miners. Today, they represent less than 80,000. All but 14, 000 are retired. In 1984, Massey began a push to break the union along the border of WV and KY, which only caused more rallies and protests.

There are people featured in this film, who – well, let’s just say I’m surprised there haven’t been movies made about them. In the archival footage shown, certain people come across like the kind of larger-thn-life villainous characters you’d see in Old Hollywood movies. People like W. A.  “Tough Tony” Boyle, who was president of the UMWA from 1963 to 1972, a guy who had Joseph Albert “Jock” Yablonski (American labor leader in the UMWA in the 1950s and 1960s) killed on December 31, 1969, by three hitmen, along wijh his wife Margaret, and his 25-year-old daughter Charlotte, as they slept in their Clarksville, Pennsylvannia home. That story in and of itself could be its own “based on a true story” movie.

As I’ve stated, this documentary is quite informative and revealing, but what struck me the most is the looming day-to-day dangers of coal mining. Some people go to work every day, bemoaning their job, exclaiming, “My job is killing me!”. That’s all figuratively speaking, of course, “Blood on the Mountain”, educates some and reminds others, that there are jobs out there that literally aware killing people.

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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click here for theatrical release dates for “Blood on the Mountain”

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elsebeth permalink
    May 1, 2017 11:52 pm

    Great review, would love to share link – only noted a possible ((and poignant?)) Freudian slip….’Blood on the Mountain” lays out a thorough timeline of all the accidents and deaths that have taken place in the region’s ***minds,*** due to either safety oversights or work-related illnesses that have developed over time like black lung and cancer’….
    Will most likely still share link to review, as is, but wanted to point out as the OCD editor I can tend to be – cheers!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      May 2, 2017 12:44 am

      Thanks for catching that!

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