An Interview with Blood on the Mountain Filmmakers Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman
by Ted Zep
The United States is many things, but fair is often not one of them. For every dream realized in the “Land of Opportunity,” a civil right has been squashed, a liberty has been trampled, or a virtue has been compromised. Often overlooked amidst the hectic banter of daily existence is the planet itself. Exploited for profit, it grows sicker with each passing year. However, the toll isn’t merely a physical one. When money is involved, the lives and livelihoods of workers and citizens are toyed with and wagered. It takes a union of brave and loud voices to combat the storm.
Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman are two such voices.
The filmmaker’s recent documentary effort, “Blood on the Mountain,” focuses on the politically and ethically corrupt coal industry in West Virginia. Told with passion and unflinching honesty, the duo are attempting to make a difference.
Ted Zep: Would you talk a bit about your background?
Mari-Lynn Evans: I was born and raised in Bulltown, WV on my family’s 9th generation 2,000 acre working farm. When I was 17, the Army Corp of Engineers declared eminent domain and took our land and home for a recreational dam. We moved to Akron, as many had before us, because we had family there. Every Friday night we drove back down home to be with our relatives. We would return to Akron after Sunday dinner.
My grandfather and my grandmother both died a few years later. I graduated from the University of Akron with degrees in Psychology, Gerontology, and Women’s Studies. At 24, I started AdultCare, adult day care centers. I sold the adult day care centers to Summa and became the first Director of Center for Senior Health at Summa, an 8-time National Institute of Aging researcher, and senior consultant for Procter and Gamble.
In 2002, I came back home to make “The Appalachians,” a PBS series. I was also the editor of the companion book (Random House), and co-producer of the companion CD (Dualtone). The film includes the last interview with Johnny Cash and Rosanne Cash. It has been seen by over 95 million people. I made the documentary because I felt it was important that our story be told in the media. The stereotype of the “moonshine-drinking, blood-feuding hillbilly” was created by yellow journalists and paid for by outside industry. That image has served to denigrate and marginalize our culture making it more vulnerable to the exploitation of workers.
While making that film, I met Judy Bonds who founded the MTR Movement. She encouraged me to continue to film and tell the story of mountaintop removal (MTR) to a national audience. Judy introduced me to Jordan Freeman who lived in the Coal River, WV and became our videographer for “Coal Country” (Discovery).
Jordan Freeman: I went to UC Santa Cruz, studying Community Studies and graduating in 2006. I got involved in fighting MTR with Coal River Mountain Watch in 2005. Filmmaking evolved as a way to further that fight, working with Mari-Lynn to allow coal community residents to tell their own stories and resist with their own voices.
TZ: How would you describe your relationship with the Appalachian region of the United States?
MLE: I grew up in West Virginia. After our farm was taken by the government, it was always bittersweet to go back there. I never imagined that I, too, would hear the siren’s call of home. I never imagined being a documentary filmmaker. I became one to tell the story of my own people who have never been fairly represented in the media. “The Appalachians” was my first documentary, followed by “Coal Country,” which supported a national movement to end MTR. In many ways, I see my own life unveiled through my documentaries. It’s been an exploration to find truth, to find justice, and to understand myself through documentary film. I suppose I would have never had the courage to be a documentary filmmaker had it not been for need and Judy Bonds.
JF: My relationship is complicated. It’s the best and the worst there. It is a place full of slow quiet suffering, industrial death at the hands of indifferent, and distant corporations. It’s also a place of incredible beauty and peace.
I was drawn initially to WV as a place with such a strong identity and complicated history. Many of the people I encountered treated me as family, allies in a struggle that takes everything. I found it to be a serious benefit in some ways to not be from the area, as the often-used tactics of going after family members, whether at their jobs or in other ways, as a way to keep people quiet, had zero effect on me. People were willing to entrust me with their stories, and I could say what I believed to be true, without fear of retribution impacting those close to me.
TZ: Why was the decision made to tell this particular story?
MLE: We continued to film as we were on the road for two years promoting “Coal Country.” I felt like I was filming ‘the end of the world as I knew it.’ On April 5, 2010 we were filming at Massey UBB when 29 coal miners were killed in an explosion there. All that suffering was the only thing that bonded the community together. But I saw the bond that came from our united pain. How did we get from the nostalgia of “The Appalachians” to the warning of “Coal Country” and then the essence of us, our true uncensored history in “Blood on the Mountain”? We interviewed people who had never told their stories on camera. We spent over five years filming. We even found over 15 minutes of rare archival footage. This story is our real history that was nearly erased but now lives forever in this film.
JF: After finishing “Coal Country,” we felt that there was a major part of the story left to be told. How does a place come to be so devastated that mountaintop removal makes sense? We saw that you can’t destroy a mountain unless you’ve first destroyed the social fabric of a place.
When Upper Big Branch blew up, killing 29 miners, it became clear that another film had to be made. We saw just how deeply related the problems facing miners at the workplace and in their communities are. The financial pressures on corporate boards and political negligence lead to death and illness. A declining number of jobs made people increasingly desperate for any job, and increasingly unwilling to criticize their neighbor’s jobs. This is understandable, but something that the companies took full advantage of and manipulated to both break the unions and expand environmentally-destructive practices.
Once we realized that there was another story to be told, we started the process of making a film. While I’d like to say that we knew what we were going for, the film really revealed itself to us over the course of a few years of shooting and editing. Our understanding evolved with each new interview and trip to the archives.
TZ: What was your collaborative process like?
MLE: I directed the filming process and selected and conducted interviews. I couldn’t have made the film without Jordan, our producer Deborah Wallace, Matt Sanchez’s brilliant editing, and all the people who contributed to the film through interviews, funding, and other support.
We are collaborating with over 40 labor/social justice/human rights/environmental organizations and national and grassroots groups (AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, Amnesty Int., Earthjustice, etc…)
JF: I handled technical and audiovisual aspects, supervising things throughout the edit. Mari-Lynn largely handled interviews. While we each had our areas of focus, it was incredibly helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and to influence things in one direction or another. Mari-Lynn would influence the look, feel, soundscape, pacing, and scope in the edit. We would discuss interview and subjects. We have very different skillsets, but found them to be complimentary.
TZ: Has the film received pushback from coal companies or governmental agencies?
JF: It’s hard to argue with the truth. We haven’t seen open pushback from industry.
TZ: Coming off a particularly charged election season, the country feels more vocal and active than it has in decades. With your documentary debuting on Netflix this month, it will receive unprecedented exposure. How can those who are touched and inspired by the film begin to participate?
JF: There are two major ways to participate: inside and outside the coalfields.
Inside Appalachia, we believe that people should be fighting for the honoring of the pensions, healthcare, and other benefits for union miners and their widows. Simultaneously, we ask that people demand an end to Mountaintop Removal. With both of these things, honored promises and ecological sanity, the future in the coalfields can be bright. Ecological devastation and poverty will both weigh the area down for generations. Often, it is presented as an either/or- if you end mountaintop removal, then the companies will go belly up and the pensions will be lost. If you support union miners, then you have to support the mines. We stand with the miners in their communities, saying that they deserve both pensions and a healthy environment. In order to get there it will require not only will, but resources from outside the coalfields: federal dollars, non-extractive investment, and a rebirth on a new path. We have to demand it because it is right. We cannot simply say ‘end mountaintop removal’ without a thought for the miners, or “support the miners” without a thought for the environment. But in order to accomplish both things, we will have to accept and demand that America clean up a mess that America made, and has benefited from for 100 years.
Outside Appalachia, we believe strongly that we have to hold on to unions, and resist fascism and corporate control in our communities. The forces at play in the coalfields are present everywhere, often less clear because they are less concentrated. Looking at the example of the coalfields, we can see clearly how toxic environments are created and people disenfranchised. It’s important to fight for the things which give us dignity in the workplace and our communities. This means supporting movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, trade unions, and the defense of science in shaping environmental policy. It means accepting that global warming is real and supporting strong controls on CO2. If there is one thing we can learn from the audacity and success of the coal industry in staying relevant, it is that there is no such thing as defense. We have to not be content to negotiate away an inch, and play the long game, holding on to each small benefit our ancestors fought and died for. The fight is everywhere.
TZ: Why is “Blood on the Mountain” an important film for people to watch?
MLE: It became my blessed responsibility to produce three acclaimed documentary films. It is my honor to preserve these stories and truths before they, too, are lost along with the culture of southern West Virginia. All our interviews from the three films are being donated to Berea University for free educational use.
JF: We felt it was important to make a film which embraced the complexity of place, as opposed to trying to simplify it. We are in a difficult time as a country, for reasons that are very complex. Divisions are deep. Understanding the complexity is the only way that we will heal those divisions, and move forward together.