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The Both of Me still

In , retired coal miner Chuck Nelson delivers a "raw coal miner's elegy in 18 minutes—informative, astonishing, and gripping minutes that go to the source of truth and reckoning." (Photo: Mountainfilm festival)

We Still Live Here: Coal Activists Fight On in Heart-Wrenching New Film

As The Both of Me makes clear, the self-destruction of Appalachia has never ended.

Jeff Biggers

Entering the abandoned ruins of a deconsecrated church and converted United Mine Workers hall with the slow approach of a horror film, the chilling opening scene in the new short documentary, The Both of Me, premiering at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival this weekend, reveals one of the most overlooked realities in the fallout over the so-called "coal wars" in central Appalachia.

The abuse of the land has always gone hand-in-hand with the abuse of the workers and residents, especially when huge mountaintop removal mining ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s.

"The coal companies wiped communities plumb off the map," retired coal miner Chuck Nelson tells us, standing in the shadows of the rubble of the West Virginia union hall, "and Lindytown is one of them."

Left behind by both coal companies and their environmental opponents, Nelson is soon joined by Goldman Prize Award-winning activist Marie Gunnoe in a deeply personal look behind the scenes, as they make a courageous last stand of resistance, even as nearby stripmining operations continue to shake the walls of their homes.

Guided by a hauntingly spare score by composer Jonathan Sigsworth, director Brandon Lavoie's brilliantly stark precision captures the forced displacement and brutal abandonment of the people and their sacred places in the mountains of coal country from large scale stripmining operations by violation-ridden coal companies, as historic footage eerily blares from an antique television in the corner with the false prophecies of prosperity.

The documentary is also a cautionary tale about the role of local activists on the frontlines, swept up in a national anti-coal and climate movement, who have paid the ultimate price of scorn, blacklisting, and even death in their own community, as the movement faltered and national environmental organizations vanished and left them to pick up the pieces.

"This is the best place in the world to be raised," Nelson declares, standing in the face of devastation of some of the oldest mountain ranges in the United States, as an act of defiance and resilience.

Beyond the drivel of any Hillbilly Elegy and its grotesque depictions of Appalachia, The Both of Me allows Nelson to deliver a raw coal miner's elegy in 18 minutes—informative, astonishing, and gripping minutes that go to the source of truth and reckoning.

As a labor leader who took on the outlaws in his own industry and became a legendary anti-stripmining activist, fourth generation coal miner Nelson quietly narrates the true legacy of mining coal in a series of poignant scenes that unfold like the anatomy of deception and death.

For starters, black lung disease from the inhalation of coal dust, still rampant in coal mines and among retired coal miners, began to devour Nelson within years, who followed his father into the mines.

As he fumbles with a pill container, having suffered a stroke, lost a kidney, and struggled with respiratory issues, Nelson quietly explains how the abuse of the land has always gone hand-in-hand with the abuse of the workers and residents, especially when huge mountaintop removal mining ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s, drastically cutting labor intensive mines for more mechanized heavy machinery operations, and destroying the labor unions in the process.

"When you open the gut of the mountain, not only does the community take a hit," Nelson says, referring to the use of explosives and bulldozers that have literally toppled over 500 mountains in central Appalachia, "your way of life, your culture, everything, you start to lose that, too."

And the mountaineers have lost their lives in the process, according to Nelson, exposed to too much coal dust and pulverized heavy metals from the explosives.

"Water comes out black as coffee," Nelson continues, "and you can't drink the water, can't breathe the air."

While stripmining may have gotten its "practice" in Illinois in the 1850s, as famed Kentucky author Harry Caudill wrote in 1962, in his landmark piece for The Atlantic, "The Rape of the Appalachians," reckless mining ways have been based on decades of failed regulatory practices. In a pointed reminder, the documentary includes a short clip from the 1970 Oscar-nominated film, Before the Mountain Was Moved, about a "broke down miner" who is also forced to fight stripmining in the 1960s in West Virginia.

As The Both of Me makes clear, the self-destruction of Appalachia has never ended.

This week, in fact, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection approved a new massive stripmining operation, despite objections by area residents over documented health and environmental problems.

"People have died off," says Nelson, who has spent years testifying, protesting, and recounting a rap sheet of documented studies on the damages from mountaintop removal mining that have been ignored by state and federal officials. "Cancer, birth defects, you name it. Life expectancy is lower here than anywhere in the country and there's a reason for that."

As West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx concluded in 2009, looking at the industry's legacy, "Coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs."

"At this point, our communities have been forgotten by both sides," Gunnoe says, unemotionally. She now heads up the Mother Jones Community Foundation in West Virginia. "Environmental organizations and coal organizations. We still live here. We still fight the same fight."

"We have all given up a lot," Nelson adds, "a big piece of our lives."

"The people who are from here are very connected to this place," Gunnoe continues, "the people here recognize their role in sustaining our country."

"They can never give back what they took from us," Nelson says, recasting his commitment to take on the coal industry, regardless of the personal cost.

In a devastating moment of anguish, Nelson is unable to finish his sentence, as the camera focuses on a photo of his wife, who died from a respiratory illness.

Ending the film from an aerial shot above a massive stripmining operation, The Both of Me captures a detonation of explosives ripping across a mountain ridge with a numbing sense of endless war on Appalachia that continues unabated.

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