by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The film was Deep Down, a 2009 documentary about the village of Maytown, Kentucky, located in the middle of the Appalachians, and the Miller Bros. Coal Company's attempt to get permits to do a mountaintop removal mine on top of the hills overlooking Willow Creek Holler. (I'd heard the word "holler" in this context before -- notably in the song "Coal Miner's Daughter," in which Loretta Lynn proudly proclaims herself as having been born in "Butcher Holler" -- but I didn't realize what it meant: it's simply Appalachia-speak for "canyon.")
The film was directed by Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen for the PBS Independent Lens series, and from the publicity surrounding it I expected it to be considerably nastier and more confrontational than it turned out; instead it's a kind of lyrical poem to the beauty of the Appalachians and the people who live there and a serious, refreshingly non-propagandistic meditation on the nature of capitalism and how it affects people who have always lived close to the land and have been largely dependent on coal for generations. The sympathies of the filmmakers are clearly with Barbara May, who organizes her fellow Maytown residents (was the town named after her family? It's certainly possible) to oppose the mine by asking the Kentucky land management board for a petition declaring the Willow Creek area "lands unsuitable for mining," but Rubin and Gilomen are honest enough to show the "other side" as well.
Their other central character is Terry Ratliff, who lives in a house he built himself on the other side of the holler from Barbara May and who is so defiantly independent he boasts that there isn't a single level or plumb wall or beam in his self-constructed home; indeed, he tells us that he resents being called a "carpenter" since he's deliberately avoided making anything level, something that obsesses any real professional carpenter. He takes the filmmakers to a hilltop, radiantly beautiful in the orange of an Appalachian sunset and covered with ample growths of native plants, and announces that this was a mountain that was flattened 30 years before by a mining company and, as they (and we) can see, it grew back just fine.
Terry seems inclined to lease his land to the mining company at first, but gradually his doubts grow as he ponders the horror stories he's heard from other people in other communities who signed coal-company leases -- and then found themselves either paid much less than they were promised by the salespeople or not paid anything at all (apparently it's a common dodge in the area for a coal company to declare bankruptcy just as the mine is played out, and the new company that takes over to announce that they're not bound by the debts of the predecessors and therefore the people have given their land away for nothing). Ultimately he doesn't lease his land, and we se a sequence of his daughter Carly marrying a young man named Steve (we never see Carly's mother or learn what happened to her), whom we're told is as ornery and independent as his new father-in-law.
At first I was disappointed that Deep Down wasn't more confrontational -- the only time we see anyone who works for Miller Bros. (which we learn is a subsidiary of a much larger company that takes over its assets after it declares bankruptcy when their request for a permit to mine by mountaintop removal is denied) is at the hearing over the land unsuitable for mining petition, and we also see some fascinating sequences in which, this being the middle of the "Bible Belt," both pro- and anti-mining speakers quote the Bible and claim that God is on their side -- but as it wound on I found myself much more sympathetic to the softer, warmer, more lyrical approach Rubin and Gilomen actually used and quite impressed by the film.
Even the use of bluegrass music as background, which I found almost abominably cliched at first, had a basis in fact: it turned out both May and Ratliff were members of a bluegrass music school in the area and the scenes in which people on opposite sides of the mining controversy nonetheless sit down together to play guitars, banjos and fiddles in the traditional style of their forebears just add to the overall haunting quality of this surprisingly lyrical, understated film that, like the pioneering cinema verite movies of the early 1960's, doesn't use a third-person narration (when Rubin and Gilomen need to provide us with exposition to help us understand what is going on, they use one of their interviews with local people to supply it) and therefore doesn't impose a blatant editorial "we" on the material.