FILM REVIEW: The Last Mountain

Film Review: The Last Mountain
by Mike Roselle

Several very good documentaries have been produced over the last decade on the tragic issue of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Many of them have focused on the Coal River Valley, and for good reason. This is the heart of coal country, and don’t call it the coalfields, because these mountains and hollows are home to people who have for over a century been sacrificed for those black rocks and some bristle at the term. “The correct term”, says Bo Webb, a local activist and long-term resident, “is sacrifice area.”

“We are being killed for coal.”

Another reason filmmakers are attracted to the area is that Bo and the many people like him that have stood up to the coal industry, extraordinarily courageous people who fight passionately to protect their communities and their way of life. They don’t mince words.

Here on Rock Creek where I have lived for the last three years, it seems we meet a new documentary filmmaker every month or so. They make the rounds to get their story, traveling up to Kayford Mountain to interview Larry Gibson, or visiting the home of Maria Gunnoe, Bo and dozens of other members of the community here on the Coal River. And some very good documentaries have been produced. Michael O’Connell’s, Mountiantop Removal, Francine and Adams Woods’ On Coal River and Mari-Lyn Evans and Phylis Geller’s Coal Country are all films that have introduced many of these local activists to a global audience and alerted many people to what Robert Kennedy Jr has called the worst environmental crime on Earth.

In the process, some of the citizen activists, like Larry Gibson, have become well known personalities in places as far away as Europe and Australia and I’ve become used to seeing my neighbors up on the big screen. The previous films have been very personal and powerful testimony to both the urgency of the issue and the passion and courage of those who have stood up to fight it, and they have educated, inspired and motivated many thousands of people who would otherwise know little or nothing about mountaintop removal.

All this was on my mind last night as I went to an advance preview in Sylvester, West Virginia of The Last Mountain, the new film by director Bill Haney about the campaign to save Coal River Mountain I wondered, “ How will this film be different? ”

It didn’t take too long before the answer to that question became very clear. Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Long before anyone had climbed up on Kayford Mountain to visit Larry, or had met Judy Bonds or Maria Gunnoe, Robert Kennedy Senior had been trying to end strip mining in Appalachia. And, as the film shows, young Robert was concerned about the environment from early on, becoming an activist at the age of 8 and monkey wrenching a housing development by age 11.

Since then he has litigated for clean water as an attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), spent 30 days in jail for protesting the bombing on Vieques Island, off the island of Puerto Rico, by the US Air Force and has represented the Riverkeepers, a large grassroots network that works to clean up our waterways, and authored a New York Times’ bestseller Crimes Against Nature (2004). Over the years he was also a frequent visitor to the Coal River Valley and has been a tireless advocate for the abolition of mountain top removal.

Sundance 2011 – Images by antrim caskey

Photographs from the Sundance 2011 Film Festival in Park City, Utah where The Last Mountain made its world premiere along with 17 other documentaries admitted to this year’s festival.

This beautifully edited film allows us to get to know Kennedy much better, and he helps us get to know Coal River Mountain, and to understand why it is so important. He argues that coal companies like Massey Energy are not only destroying the mountains, they are breaking the law, and that the local politicians look the other way because of the millions of dollars in cash that the coal industry on elections. Of course, many of us know all this, but the The Last Mountain escorts the viewer step by step on how we got here, including West Virginia’s critical support of President George W Bush and the subsequent appointment of J. Steven Griles to the Department of the Interior, a small but important detail that illustrates the treachery unleashed upon us of late.

The Last Mountain not only informs us, The Last Mountain challenges us all to get involved. Robert Kennedy, Jr is drawing a line in the sand and asking us to stand with him as he advocates for non-violent civil disobedience to save Coal River Mountain. The film includes many dramatic scenes from protests by Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Climate Ground Zero.

Regular visitors to this site do not need to be reminded of the costs of mountain top removal and the devastation it wreaks. There is no need to quote all of the horrible statistics; 500 mountains destroyed; thousands of miles of creeks buried; two million pounds of explosives detonated each day and so on. Yet even if you already know this, this film puts all that information out in a way that will still make you see Coal River Mountain in a new light. It also takes a larger look at the coal industry, from the processing, shipping, and burning to storing the fly ash and lays out the true costs of using coal to make electricity.

The Last Mountain
also examines the alternative to burning coal for electricity, pointing out that wind power could replace all of that electricity as Kennedy takes us on a virtual tour of the proposed Coal River Mountain Wind Farm that over its lifetime would not only produce more electricity cheaper, but provide more tax money to the county than does coal mining.

Seeing Bobby Kennedy’s commitment to saving this last mountain gave me new hope that this battle can still be won. As Bo Webb states in the film, “Coal River Mountain stands as a symbol of what could be, and what the future of America – not just Appalachia – but what the future of America can hold.” Whether you have ever heard of mountain top removal or not, and even if you thought you knew everything about coal mining and the global campaign to stop it, this movie will enrage and astound you with its graphic depiction of the violent devastation of the land and the people of Appalachia.

Hopefully it will also inspire you to join the movement to stop this madness. In this important and beautifully crafted film, director Bill Haney has made a strong case that the destruction of these mountains and these communities is the worst environmental crime in America, and that saving Coal River Mountain is about much more than saving one mountain.

The Last Mountain opens in select theaters June 3, 2011
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