Mine War on Blackberry Creek (Anne Lewis, 1986)

Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Adapted from Anne Lewis and Creative Vision (2004) from the Center for Social Media at American University:

I come out of a movement to change media so that it engages ordinary people and creates opportunity for positive social change. I believe in the power of telling the truth with all the understanding that intellect can offer. I have practiced the art of documentary filmmaking—frequently with limited resources—since 1968. This combined intent to create meaningful work, tell the truth about the complex world of ordinary Americans, and contribute to the independent field has determined my creative work. My approach is inclusive, informed by social change, accessible, and non-dogmatic.

In 1973, I went with Barbara Kopple to Harlan County, Kentucky as associate director and assistant camerawoman of Harlan County, U.S.A. That experience radically changed my approach to filmmaking. I had been working on the film syncing dailies and reviewing material. Then a call came from the United Mineworkers that they needed someone to film in Harlan County or there would be a killing. Barbara, Kevin Keating, Richard Warner (our local liaison who had owned a sock store in Knoxville, Tennessee), and I flew to Knoxville, loaded into a station wagon with all the 16 mm gear, and drove across 2 lane roads to the picket line. We arrived at 5 am. On one side of the road there were about 30 state troopers looking mean. On the other side, there were an equal number of tough-looking women with clubs. Within an hour, we were filming violent arrests and women being dragged. Documentary filmmaking was no longer a distant and separate art. It was a way of being involved, being present. It was possible to be an active participant and still tell the truth—only from a more intimate and passionate perspective.

After production and rough cut editing was completed on Harlan County, I returned to the coalfields of Appalachia where I lived for the next twenty-five years. 

In 1982, I began a long association with Appalshop of Whitesburg, Kentucky—a national arts center described by Pat Aufderheide as “an unsentimental exercise in authenticity.” I originally was hired to edit a feature length play, Red Fox, Second Hangin’, which had been shot in 1-inch video with 4 cameras and 3 performances. I then began working with Headwaters Television, a weekly half-hour television series that screened on the NBC affiliate in Hazard, Kentucky. Marty Newell handled the administration of the project and was the director of photography. I directed, did sound, and edited. We produced 27 half-hours a year that ranged in quality from the Hazard Community Choir performing Handel’s Messiah with the London (Kentucky) Symphony Orchestra to some wonderful programs about local musicians. After two years, we moved the series to Kentucky Public Television and produced seven half-hour shows a year. I am still proud of the work we produced — Peace Stories, stories of 3 veterans who decided that war was wrong (once more in active distribution); Yellow Creek, Kentucky, about a grassroots struggle against a toxic industry; Camp 18, about a state prison shotgun road crew; and a coal miners’ response to Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union. I described my work as “community directed”—I would involve community residents throughout the production. For example, in Yellow Creek, Kentucky, a community resident gives us a tour of the creek, introducing us to his neighbors on the way. I asked members of the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens to suggest questions for the City Attorney, then asked the attorney those questions, showed the material back to the citizens, taped their responses, and edited the pieces together. I also discovered that it is possible to find depth and vitality at home—even if that home is rural and poor. It is not necessary to travel long distances or interview famous people, to find stories that have meaning and energy.

Bill Moyers in a recent interview with Terry Gross spoke about two kinds of documentaries—ones that are made and ones that are found. I would see my documentaries as the found variety—finding truth rather than inventing it.

We live in a time when ideologues preach through the media. Evidence is spun; we see ourselves as consumers instead of citizens; we live in fear of our neighbors; the market is the only determiner of value. The independent documentary field—in spite of a lack of public funding—is one of the few places where the freedom can be found to lift some of this distortion and pervasive fear. Without that truth telling, we are in danger of living in a closed and repressive society.
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