Ten Essential Documentaries About 
West Virginia NOT by 
West Virginia Filmmakers

November 2002

Steve Fesenmaier
Research Librarian
West Virginia Library Commission

Many of these films are rare, and difficult to 
find…some are not…

Mimi Pickering is the only filmmaker who makes two of my lists - this one and Ten Essential WV Films by WV Filmmakers. She is a unique person, living both in WV and Kentucky, and actually being a native of California. Probably this film should be listed on the WV filmmaker list, but since I only gave myself ten spots, it had to go here. I also had to include True Facts... here, even though its two creators are absolutely citizens of the state. Also, Tommie Dell Smith, who made Breaking Silence, was indeed a citizen of the state when she made it, and it was chosen "best adult film" by a national library magazine. Concerning Barbara Kopple, who made Locked Out - I almost included her Harlan County, USA in Ten Greatest Feature Films About West Virginia, since she lived in Charleston when she began the project, and Arnold Miller, the hero of the film, is from WV. I may have to say that the greatest Appalachian film of all time is Harlan County, which was recently redone as a docudrama, filmed in Canada, starring Holly Hunter, in the film, Harlan County War. This list is NOT as important as Ten Essential WV Films by WV Filmmakers and Ten Greatest Feature Films About West Virginia, but it does list ten films that have endured the test of time - except for Razing Appalachia, which has not been shown publicly inside the state yet, as far as I know. However, I have seen it, and it is very well done.

1.  BUFFALO CREEK – AN ACT OF MAN. (1975) Mimi Pickering - This is one of the first films by Appalshop, the official media arts center for Appalachia. They made a sequel 10 years latter, Buffalo Creek Revisited. Both films chronicle the great disaster that happened on Buffalo Creek after a coal-waste dam broke, killing 125 people.

2.  COMPANY TOWN. (1983) Jim Rutenbeck came to the state and documented one of the most famous company towns left in Appalachia – the town of Widen in Clay County. Rutenbeck moved to Boston and became a world-class documentary filmmaker, editing many of the films for PBS’ American Experience films. He returned to War, McDowell County, to finish his film, Raise the Dead, about a contemporary circuit rider preacher. 

3.  RAZING APPALACHIA. (2002) Sasha Waters made this feature length documentary about the devastating effects of mountaintop removal on the people of Blair Mountain.

4.  THE JOLO SERPENT HANDLERS. (1978) Karen Kramer began her film career by making a film about the church members in Jolo, Mc Dowell County, who drink poison, handle poisonous snakes, and do other things to prove their faith in God.

5.  WILD AND WACKY WORLD OF HASIL ADKINS. (1993) Appalshop made this film about one of the state’s most famous musicians. One-man-band Hasil Adkins invented "The Hunch," and such continental hits as the "Chicken Walk" and "I'm Gonna Cut Your Head Off And Hang It On the Wall." Hasil gives a sample of his art as he dances, sings, and stomps on the top of his truck (hope it's his) and entertains in a tavern. Hasil begins where country roads end!

6.  TRUE FACTS...IN A COUNTRY SONG. (1979) Burt/Chadwick - A rare look at the life of a WW music family. The Lilly Brothers found fame in Boston and Japan, returning to WV after a son's death. The true facts of an Appalachian family are revealed in their songs, including "Hide You in the Blood of Jesus," "Sailor Boy," "Come Early Morning," "Sitting on Top of the World," "We Shall Meet Again," "Gathering Shells From the Seashore" and "What Will I Leave Behind." 

7.  TEN MILES TO FETCH WATER. (1989 ) Asymmetry Prod. - The southern coalfields of WV are known for labor struggles. They also have some of the worst water problems in the nation. Abandoned by the coal companies that built them, these small communities face problems different from urban centers. Most lack the resources to keep up their water systems. 

8.  BREAKING SILENCE: THE STORY OF THE SISTERS AT DESALES HEIGHTS. (1993 VHS) Tommie Dell Smith - Breaking Silence takes us behind the walls of a 150-year-old cloistered monastery in WV as the twelve surviving Sisters of the Visitation prepare to face the outside world for the first time in their adult lives. Some of these women came to live here when they were young children, and most of them have not left the building for fifty, sixty and, in the case of Sister Innocentia, over ninety years. Until the 1960's they were forbidden to speak or even to be seen by people from the outside world. Their only contact was through the children they taught and the occasional visits from the doctor, the dentist, or the undertaker. Breaking Silence follows the Sisters through their final year at the convent as they struggle to deal with the grief, the fear, the anger, and the uncertainty of their future, even as the halls of tradition crumble down around them. At the same time they find themselves reviewing the reasons of their decline and questioning both the validity of their years of service and the relevance of their institution in the modern world. It is a rare, intimate, and emotionally powerful insight into a way of life that may soon be gone forever. 

9.  APPALACHIA: NO MAN'S LAND. (1981) Mary Knoll - The recent super-merger of Conoco and Dupont sets the importance of this incisive film investigation into Appalachia. It was filmed in Mingo County, WV, and Martin County, KY. Interviews with the natives, organizers, and poets are intercut with the scenes of destruction. Floods, black lung, and uncontrolled strip-mining disasters, which are the result of ownership by huge multinational corporations, are the primary forces in Appalachia. The postscript lists results of the Appalachian Regional Commission land ownership study just published.  

10. LOCKED OUT IN AMERICA: VOICES FROM RAVENSWOOD. (1992) Barbara Kopple - During the 1980s, over 300,000 workers lost their jobs to permanent replacements in some of this country's biggest labor disputes. Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple, known for her films American Dream and Harlan County USA, takes us to Ravenswood, WV, a town devastated by a bitter lockout and the hiring of replacement workers. Ravenswood had been torn apart since June 1991, when Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) locked out 1700 steelworkers. The workers could see it coming - RAC put up barbed wire, boarded windows, and brought in fifteen tractor-trailers filled with replacement workers - but they were unprepared for the hard months that followed. Now they and their families survive on dwindling strike benefits and donations, but continue to fight to get their jobs back. Kopple's profiles of these individuals take us to the heart of the controversy over labor's right to strike, and industry's use of permanent replacements - a battle about to come to a head in the U.S. Congress.

Additional AppLit Resources: 
Complete List of AppLit Pages on Film

Steve Fesenmaier's Annotated Bibliographies of West Virginia and Appalachian Films

See Also:

Appalachian Film and Television Topics

Dr. Stephen D. Mooney, Instructor, Department of English and Appalachian Studies Program, has compiled a list of film and television shows for his Appalachian Studies Classes at Virginia Tech, VA.   

Appalshop For a complete catalog, contact the Appalshop Marketing and Sales Office at 1-800-545-7467 or appalshopsales@appalshop.org.

Davenport Films and From the Brothers Grimm  
American versions of classic folk and fairy tales, many Appalachian.  Davenport has also made many other Appalachian films.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
, Huntington, WV

Press release from September 9, 2002, entitled “World premier screenings at Flooded Out Film Festival
All proceeds from Oct. 10 event go to flood victims”

West Virginia Film Makers Film Festival

Winning Festival Films, background information on the first festival, local history, links to sponsors, links to information on film such as The Griffin and the Minor Canon, The Night of the Hunter, Invasion of the Space Preachers, etc.

West Virginia Filmmakers Guild 

The West Virginia Filmmakers Guild was created in 1985 to provide networking and communication between West Virginia film and video makers and those interested in these crafts in West Virginia. Central to its mission is educating the public and promoting West Virginia filmmakers and their films to the public.



Created:  12/06/2002
Last Update:  07/07/2003 12:39:36 PM
Links Checked:  07/07/2002