Monday, April 20, 2009

"Bonecrusher": an intimate documentary about coal miners in SW Virginia

On Monday, April 20, 2009 FilmfestDC presented the new “local” documentary “Bonecrusher”, written and directed by Michael F. Fountain, show at the Regal complex at Gallery Place in Washington. The director was present for Q&A.

The film documents the life of a young coal miner, Lucas Chaffin, who aims to follow in the footsteps of his retired father Luther ("Bonecrusher"), who, at around 62, is dying of black lung disease and lung cancer. Lucas seems determined to continue the “family tradition” despite his father’s wishes, gets married, and then, toward the end, considers leaving and trying to go to work in the cable industry in the DC area.

But why is Lucas so determined to stay in the family tradition? I recall a passage in the movie “October Sky” where an older brother agrees to give up school and work in the mines out of “family responsibility” when Dad gets black lung. (The ambitious younger brother Homer, the future rocket scientist in that film, winds up working in the mines.) Here, though, it seems like part of the motive is the camaraderie of the underground world, whereas the wives have another world above ground.

The movie, shot in HD, shows the countryside in Russell County in SW Virginia, coal country near small town of Dante (and larger town of Norton on “the Trail of the Lonesome Pine”). I visited this area with a former roommate in 1972 when the area looked horribly strip-mined. I visited it again in 1990 when it looked “better”. I wondered how far underground the coal seams have to be before the coal is stripmined by mountaintop removal rather than by underground mining. Most of the outdoor plateau scenery is in the fall (with deep colors) and winter (with icicles and light snow), with plenty of coal train scenes. The “Natural Tunnel” on the CSX railroad is near the site of the film.

The movie also shows the underground mine scenes, in horribly cramped spaces, with all the instruments, and the safety records. This was a non-union mine.

There is a curious sequence where the film shows an endoscopy (actually the view down his esophagus) on Luther, followed immediately by a view of a cart going into a mine. The director insists that the made the film to tell a story about a culture, not to investigate political issues.

Picture below: Natural Tunnel, VA, my picture, July 2005.

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