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The Future Belongs to Dreamers in “King Coal”

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PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: (L–R) Elijah Stevens, Christina Wen, Shane Boris, Alexandra Fehrman, Diane Becker, Dominic “Shodekeh” Talifero, Molly Born, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Curren Sheldon, Iva Radivojević, Katherine Drexler, Peggy Drexler, Heather Baldry, Billy Wirasnik, and Clara Haizlett attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “King Coal” premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images)

By Lucy Spicer

What happens when the foundation of a community’s identity becomes maligned?

In her experimental documentary King Coal, filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon views Central Appalachia through a kaleidoscopic lens that layers the past, present, and potential future of a coal mining community.

King Coal, which premiered on January 23 at the Egyptian Theatre, takes a unique approach to the documentary medium that exemplifies the spirit of the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT category. The film is gently driven by voiceover narration from the director herself, imparting stories about her family and upbringing in Central Appalachia as well as musing on the region’s identity before and after coal.

A departure from Sheldon’s previous vérité work, this examination of storytelling juxtaposes a present-day portrait of a coal community with sweeping shots of verdant mountain scenery set to a dreamy score by Bobak Lotfipour and extraordinary sound effects by breath artist Dominic “Shodekeh” Talifero.

“Some of the sounds that you heard throughout the film, sparrows, ocean waves, overtone breath, thunder, maybe some crickets, I recorded them as stems at the Monongahela National Forest with Elaine and her team,” reveals Talifero at the film’s post-premiere Q&A before asking everyone in the room to close their eyes. What followed was a succession of sounds — wind, water, crickets, birdsong — all produced by Talifero’s own breath.

The film’s present-day scenes follow a young girl as she learns the history of coal. Despite its recent decline in public favor, coal continues to permeate the local culture, from public art to school science project topics to a coal-themed beauty pageant. Everywhere you look, there’s coal, floating down the river on barges and piled up like smaller versions of the majestic mountains behind it.

For some, coal is a source of pride and history, and the mythos is what keeps their community alive. Sheldon’s soothing, lyrical voiceover encourages audiences to contemplate an identity beyond. After all, the forests and mountains where she lives have been around long before humans started digging them up.

“Learning from the coal rituals that are done on the ground, we learned that the film had to make its own forms of ritual for forward-facing ideas of place and all the other treasures beyond coal,” explains Sheldon at the post-premiere discussion.

“Some think that place matters less today,” narrates Sheldon at the beginning of the film. “But here, we know that our bodies are only ever in one place.” And this place, though sprinkled with coal dust, can still be magical.

The Q&A closed with words from poet Crystal Good, who appears in the film: “I hope that all of you in here will dream a new world, because I always think of West Virginia as the canary in the coal mine — so goes West Virginia, so goes America,” she says. “It’s imagination that’s gonna save us, and that’s the next chapter.”

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