Chad A. Stevens, director of the documentary “Overburden,” tried out two other titles for his film before settling on the third. Appropriately, Stevens’ presentation at the UM School of Journalism on Wednesday, February 24th, also came with three potential titles: “The Life, Death & Afterlife of a Documentary,” “How in the World did I Survive this Thing?” and “Thank God for Talented Friends and Box Wine.”
“Overburden” played at the Wilma Theater as part of the 2016 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival later that same day. The film follows two women in the heart of Appalachian coal country and their fight to save Coal River Mountain from the Massey Energy Company after an underground fire kills 29 miners.
Stevens said the first iteration of this project began while he was working on his master’s thesis at Ohio University. However, his moment of inspiration began several years earlier, in 2003, during his time as a photojournalist-in-residence at Western Kentucky University. One day, Stevens and a friend were driving through the hills when they crested a ridge and Stevens got his first look at a mountain top removal site. “There was a shocking amount of destruction,” he said.
Originally Stevens focused on the environmental aspects of coal mining. He photographed events at the Mountain Justice summer convergence and followed the activists who chained themselves to bulldozers at the top of Coal River Mountain. Yet Stevens realized that this story lacked the intimacy to connect with a broader audience. He looked to the valley where people lived right below the mining sites, whose blasts shook their homes’ foundations.
“I started to have this idea that maybe it could be more,” Stevens said. “I was like, 100% heart. I have to do this no matter what.”
It took Stevens about two years to gain the trust of one of his main characters, Lorelei Scarbro, who had seen plenty of journalists disappear after getting their pictures and quotes from the community. Yet Stevens referred to time as a gift and said it allowed him to understand what mattered most to Scarbro and her battle against coal.
“I was so damn stubborn and wouldn’t leave,” Stevens said, and his patience paid off. “To be there when her grandson was born—that never would’ve never happened without that time.”
One of the project’s major turning points came on April 5th, 2010, when a methane leak and an errant spark caused an explosion in the nearby Upper Big Branch mine.
“As you can imagine, that deeply impacted the community,” Stevens said. “And of course, it changed the film as well.”
A second main character emerged—a pro-coal activist whose brother died in the explosion and spurred her to join Scarbro’s fight.
Stevens also realized that the film’s central theme switched from an environmental perspective to more economy-based story, which explored how extraction-based economies limit local communities.
During the production process, Stevens licensed some of his footage and sold it to organizations that were working on tangential stories, as long as he knew they wouldn’t overlap with “Overburden.”
“I actually paid an editor to edit my film because I felt too close to it,” Stevens said.
Looking back on this ten-year project, Stevens reminded the room full of UM Journalism students about the importance of reaching out to others for help and the importance of remaining humble, because “it’s always bigger than just us.”
Stevens also spoke of the potential that comes from “opportunity blindness.” He said, “When you first start off, there’s no way to know what doors will open down the road. You just got to put it out there.”
While funding such projects remains a challenge for today’s journalists, one of Stevens’ teachers once told him, “Sometimes you do what you gotta do to feed your belly. And sometimes you do what you gotta do to feed your soul.”
Now a tenured professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Stevens has his own mantra for students to learn.
“It’s all about collaboration and community,” Stevens said. “When we care, we as the story-tellers care, that care transfers.”
To learn more about UM J-school affiliates reporting on coal communities in Montana, check out second-year graduate student, Andrew Graham’s contributions to National Geographic’s blog The Great Energy Challenge, and adjunct professor, Matthew Frank’s publications on Mountain West News.
By Jana Wiegand