In Fall 2016, with their class deadline closing in, a team of Ithaca college students had to figure out a topic for their thesis film, and fast. After reading a Vice article about anti-coal activism in West Virginia and doing some research of their own, they decided to investigate for themselves. Now, their documentary is being considered for awards at an international film festival.
“Walk on the Mountain” is a documentary produced by 3 Point Productions for the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies’ Documentary Workshop class during Fall 2016. The team is made up of then-seniors Will Gregg ‘17, Madeleine Van Dam ‘17 and Eddie Mostert ‘17; then-juniors Onika Richards and Luke Watkins; and then-sophomore Julia Keahey. The film focuses on coal mining in West Virginia, specifically on Junior Walk, an anti-coal activist in Naoma.
“It’s in the county that is the most dependent on coal,” Keahey said. “The coal industry affects every aspect of life there. Something like 90 percent of the jobs there are coal-related.”
Ben Crane, associate professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies, created the Documentary Workshop class in 1983, and continues to teach the course. Crane said the course requires students to create their own production company with the goal of creating a documentary short.
“Walk on the Mountain” is approximately 19 minutes long, and the group spent 13 days shooting and editing it in West Virginia.
After the film screened Dec. 8, 2016, at the college, 3 Point Productions decided to submit the film to the Banff Mountain film festival in Banff, Alberta, Canada, an annual short film competition featuring short films and documentaries about mountain culture. The film was selected for screening Oct. 29, and four members of 3 Point Productions, Keahey, Van Dam, Mostert and Gregg attended the screening.
West Virginia is the first state where Donald Trump reached the top of the polls. Keahey said that coal jobs are in decline as human labor is replaced by machinery. In addition, EPA regulations under the Obama administration were tight on coal. Keahey said coal jobs were leaving the area and still are. Coal production in West Virginia decreased by nearly 50 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Walk works for the Coal River Mountain watch group that monitors coal activity in the area, such as making sure coal companies follow proper laws and regulations.
“He thinks coal is ruining the environment,” Keahey said. “He has had health problems… every male in his family was a coal miner. His dad has problems breathing, his granddad died young.”
The documentary follows Walk as he monitors the activities of local coal operations, and also features interviews people whose jobs and livelihoods revolve around coal. Walk has received death threats and had his car brakes sabotaged over his anti-coal activism.
“What would you do if you knew this place, if you hunted here when you were younger?” Walk said in the film. “I’m not willing to give up yet, not until they put me in the ground.”
Gregg said the film festival gave him the opportunity to see other films he might not have otherwise watched.
“The festival was amazing,” Gregg said. “It’s beautiful out there with all the mountains. We saw a lot of the screenings … there was a ‘Planet Earth’ episode that screened there and that was like, ‘Wow, we’re up against ‘Planet Earth’ here.’”
Gregg said the reception to the film was encouraging.
“People came up to us and said how much they loved it afterwards,” Gregg said. “A professor from the University of Oregon said she’d love to screen it and have us call in and talk about it. That was really cool.”
After the screening, Gregg said someone from Banff World Tour, a traveling festival featuring films covering diverse topics, told them their film was on the shortlist.
“Half a million people end up seeing the films all over the world,” Gregg said. “Even if it’s a no-go, just to hear that we’re on the shortlist is pretty incredible.”
Crane said the classes often win awards at the film festivals they enter. Student films created during the workshop have received student Emmys from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the past, and in 2015, a documentary was selected to screen at South by Southwest, a prestigious annual conglomerate of film and media.
“We have a very good history of winning prizes at various festivals, and that’s always my goal,” Crane said. “I’ve discovered over the years if you hold the bar high, students will jump over it.”
The Banff Mountain Film Festival runs until Nov. 5, and 3 Point Productions will not know if they have received awards or made the world tour until the festival is over.