A Lifetime in the Mines: An Essay on Watching Films about Coal Mining + Complete filmography – by Steve Fesenmaier (July 23, 2009)

Steve Fesenmaier, director of WVLC Film Services – I wonder if coal miners ever watch movies? Frani Stone, native West Virginian and assistant director of WVLC, Film Services – I think miners spend enough of their time in the dark….. Summer, 1979

Recently a Pittsburgh filmmaker contacted me concerning his expanding film pertaining to the Monongah 1907 Disaster. He has completed a 25-minute version of a film, but plans to add another hour or so, making it a wider film. He asked me about “other films on coal mining.” This request caused me to spend a concerted amount of time compiling the following list of films about coal mining. Considering the fact that I, at this point, have spent 30 years watching every possible film on the subject, helping several films be made and showing coal mine films in numerous milieus, a brief essay on the subject may be worth writing in my case and worth reading in yours.

The first coal mine film I ever saw was “Harlan County, USA” at the Edina Theater in south Minneapolis, around May 1978. I recall staggering out of the theater, thinking that it was a powerful film. I thought, “How could Americans be treated by their bosses like that?” Within a month, I was in New York City at The American Film & Video Festival, standing back to back with the director, Barbara Kopple. I had just accepted an award at the festival for Les Blank. Kopple and I were shaking hands in the lobby, people thinking that I was Les. I called him on the phone, telling him that he had better get down to the  festival so HE could shake hands.

Within a few months, now living in Charleston, I learned that Kopple had been invited to the Governor’s office in Charleston to talk to people about filmmaking in the state. Unfortunately I was not invited to the meeting. However, I did find a brand new 16 mm print of the film in my new office. I told my assistant at the time that she had to watch it despite her reluctance, and I began my life as a promoter of films about coal mine.

Around the same time, September 1978, I also began my career as a projectionist, having to come to the West Virginia Cultural Center to show Bob Gates’ landmark film, “In Memory of the Land and People.” The film had been chosen as part of the West Virginia Juried Exhibition, but the head of The Division of Culture & History, Norman Fagan, refused to have his staff show the film as he and Gates had some differences.

Consequently, for several Sundays on my own time I would show the film in one of the basement conference rooms.

During the next twenty years, as director of the Film Services Division of the West Virginia Library Commission, I purchased 16 mm copies of every film I could find about coal mine and all related subjects. As I went through the shelf list of those films recently, I am surprised at how few films we actually purchased.

Other than “Harlan County,” the two films that most impress me are the biographical film about John L. Lewis and Joris Ivens and Joseph Strick’s 1932 masterpiece, “Misery in the Borinage.” One national president of the U.M.W.A. while preparing to run for that office watched one of few copies of the film in existence. As I recall, the film was also shown in The Cultural Center Museum as a film loop, running continuously as part of its exhibition on coal. “Misery” is said to be the first film concerning coal miners and their despondent lives to be shown around the world.

I screened the film in 2004 for The South Charleston Museum’s Belgium Film Festival, and thought it was even better than I recalled. Once again, “How could people treat other human beings this way?” I believe I have watched more films about coal mine than anyone living. The Obenhausen Short Film Festival contacted me once about the names of films pertaining to coal mine. I mailed them information on the films that I knew existed. This was around 1981 because I can recall seeing a horror film, “My Bloody Valentine,” which was
partially set in a coal mine.

Some of the earliest films I purchased were about Montana coal mine. Recently I went through the shelf list of 16 mm films and found four of them including one whose name I recalled – “Western Coal – An American Dilemma.” The other films were shorts that dealt in some way with the destruction of the land, etc. in Montana, just as coal mine has destroyed so much land in West Virginia.

For the rest of this essay, click here:  http://www.niu.edu/~rfeurer/labor/A%20Lifetime%20in%20the%20Mines%20-%20essay%20&%20filmography.100p.7.23.09.pdf

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