"DA Discusses" is a video series where reporters speak with people on campus or in the state who have influence over decisions that affect students.
Appalachian filmmaker and WVU alumna Elaine Sheldon spoke with video editor Trenton Straight about the significance of Appachlian film and her upcoming project, “King Coal.”
Sheldon is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy- and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker and West Virginia University alumna.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: I’d like to welcome Elaine Sheldon, who is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy- and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker and a West Virginia University alumna. She is based in Appalachia and her work often highlights issues in the region.
DA: For those of you who may not know, Elaine is the director of two Netflix original documentaries, “Heroin(e),” which received an Academy Award nomination, and “Recovery Boys.” Both documentaries focus on the opioid crisis in Appalachia. Her most recent film from FRONTLINE and The Marshall Project, “Tutwiler,” tell the story of pregnant incarcerated women in what is noted as one of the worst female prisons in the country.
DA: More recently, Elaine has been named as part of the 2021 class of Creative Capital Awards, through which she’s received $50,000 of funding for her current project, “King Coal,” which explores the relationship between coal and human experience in Appalachia, according to her website. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, it’s a real pleasure.
Elaine Sheldon: I’m happy to join. I used to work at the DA.
DA: Well, you’re a fellow DA member too then. I’d like to begin by talking about your current project, “King Coal.” I know it’s still underway, but can you briefly describe the film and give me some insight on how the production is going so far?
ES: Sure, “King Cole” is a feature-length documentary, so it will be 80-90 minutes and it is part nonfiction and part fiction. I am taking our history and story about the identity that’s been built up around coal and coal mining and the pride, but also the effects of coal mining, and creating a new myth for the past and future.
ES: It’s sort of a magical realism documentary that allows us to acknowledge the past and recognize that our future lies ahead, and to think of new ideas and new ways to move forward and find our identity. Maybe that means looking to the past and the best things that makes Appalachians, Appalachians –– which is their devotion to their neighbor and resilience and all these things that we’ve taken pride in, but sort of lost along the way. So it’s a film that really reminds us who we are beyond industry, beyond a particular one identity that feels pretty fixed at the moment.
ES: My producer Molly Born, who is also a West Virginia native, her and I have been working on it since 2019, maybe a little earlier, and production kind of stalled with COVID-19, so the last thing we were able to shoot was in March  with people. It’s been largely a lot of planning, fundraising and pitching. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be mostly filmed in the fall of this year and next year in West Virginia. It’s kind of a long-term project that requires a different skill set I’ve never used before, which is bringing together fiction and nonfiction.
DA: Could you elaborate more on the term magical realism for those who are watching?
ES: It’s pairing the elements of what is real in our everyday life and finding the particular oddities or––it’s kind of hard to explain––it’s not like fantasy in the sense that we are creating a world that doesn’t exist, but it’s looking at our real world and the real parts of it and finding the magic or special or parts that sort of hit the emotional strides of what it means to be Appalachia and Appalachian. And what it means to live in Appalachia in 2021. The modern day tensions that we have today that have existed for generations, this sort of unknown, uncertain future that we have and reidentifying who we are through elements that don’t always have to be practical, right? It’s not always about being super accurate, it’s more about being imaginative. So magical realism allows me to pair real experiences, real nonfiction, with dreams and imaginations about what our real future could be. So if there’s anyone out there listening that has dreams about what Appalachia should be, I’d love to hear from you.
DA: How did you first stumble upon this project and where did you get the idea initially?
ES: I’ve been wanting to make a film about coal for a while because I’ve made a film about black lung, I’ve made a film about economics and coal, but I wanted to make a film about first, the sense of brotherhood and belonging that exists among miners. My father was a coal miner, my brother still works in the coal mines, all my cousins work in the mines, the ones that aren’t laid off. It’s been a constant presence in my family. That comes with good and bad obviously, and I have always been really interested in the effect of coal mining on the psyche of individuals to fill a sense of pride and belonging in the same sort of that the military provides for people.
ES: I think that’s sort of one of the things we’re missing when we’re talking about the death of coal. We obviously need to move on to cleaner energy, we need to move forward, right? But we also need to have the conversation about what it means when so much of your identity is wrapped up in this particular brotherhood, sisterhood that’s wrapped around that. I’ve wanted to explore that psychological element for a long time because it affects me, my family and I care about what their future is. I think a lot of people feel left out of the conversation and belittled and there’s a lot of misunderstanding. It’s not at all a pro-coal or anti-coal film in any way as much as it’s a psychological exploration. In other states it may be other industries––industry, especially in mono economies, have these strong pulls for people.
DA: I recently watched your newest film, the “Tutwiler” film from 2020, and I thought it was very compelling. Do you mind providing us with a brief overview before we get into the film?
ES: Sure, I made this film with Alysia Santo, she is a [staff writer] at The Marshall Project, she’s reported on criminal justice for nearly a decade and with FRONTLINE. FRONTLINE actually approached me to work with Alysia. Most of my stories come from things that I’m interested in, and then I find ways to fundraise for them and tell them, but this particular story came from FRONTLINE and The Marshall Project and it was a real honor to collaborate with them.
ES: We spent 40 days over the course of about a year-and-a-half following a group of women who were incarcerated while pregnant and had only 24 hours with their babies to bond. We were more interested in going inside the prison to see the daily life of what it’s like to be separated from your child and the sort of simulations of motherhood these women do to keep up bonds even though they can't see their babies. The film is filled with scenes like a baby shower in the prison and the women reading books to their kids on videos that they then mail home. We were real interested in seeing these women as mothers more than incarcerated women. They are probably one of the most stigmatized populations out there because not only are they pregnant, in prison, but some of them have been struggling with drug addiction, it’s a really complicated story, so I was really big honored to behave their trust to be able to tell it.
ES: It also focuses on the doula in the Alabama Prison Project, which are incredible people who go into the prison, do childbirth education and also provide healthy meals, which they’re not really getting at all––fruits and vegetables which pregnant women need for their babies. Making sure they have access to prenatal vitamins, actually pumping their breast milk after and sending it back to their babies, so the Alabama Prison Project is a big part of the film too.
DA: What was it like for you to witness these stories first hand?
ES: It’s tough. When you’re a person who goes into that type of situation where the bars slam behind you and you can leave at any moment, you’re really feeling quite conflicted about the whole thing and how to tell the story in a complex way because you’re not stuck there. You’re just there for six hours or whatever it might be and then you leave. It’s a very complicated question of how to represent something that you yourself are not fully immersed in experiencing. So we tried to spend as much time as they would let us inside the prison.
ES: Kudos to Alysia for getting us this access. This prison had never allowed cameras inside. It has a history and a reputation of sexual abuse and assault on the women inmates from the male guards. They’ve really tried to turn things around in the past five years or so by hiring a mostly female staff and putting up security cameras. The prison is trying to turn things around, but they have no money. It’s a really hot place, it’s really loud, so our audio was always a challenge to hear the women. It’s Alabama, there’s no air conditioning, there’s fans on. It was a pretty miserable experience to film in there, so I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be there for years as some of these women are––or even for months.
ES: It really opens your eyes to the sort of human resilience that has to be maintained within the prison’s walls to not lose your mind and not lose track of who you are as a woman, as a mother and where your children are. It really reveals the sisterhood among these women because they take care of one another. They’re there when a woman returns from the hospital without her baby. They’re there to comfort her because they’ve been through that. It wasn’t as scary as I think people think prison is. My experience with these women were incredibly warm and open. They reminded me of a lot of girls I went to high school with, and they just wanted to be seen as human beings. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.
DA: I found the last sequence of the film to be especially powerful with Misty returning from the hospital and you had the juxtaposition between the shots of the baby and Misty.
ES: Yeah, so the issue was, babies don’t come on schedules. They come when they need to come or when they want to come, and so it was really hard to make sure we were at the right place at the right time to actually film a woman returning. Out of a year-and-a-half of shooting, Misty was the only woman we were able to catch getting transported and being brought back. We missed Brittany’s, we missed all these people by hours. Our plane would land, we’d be rushing there and Brittany would already be at the hospital. It was a tricky situation in the edit. When we knew we wanted to have both the woman returning and the baby going to, in this case a group home. Some babies go to family members, some babies go to the state––which is not a good situation because then the women have to fight to get them back.
ES: In this situation, the baby went to a group home called the Adullam House, which takes care of them until the woman gets out. We knew we wanted to follow both, and it wasn't until we were in the edit that we decided to actually contrast both and actually mix in the edit Misty returning, baby returning and then Misty finally going back to her cell. A lot of it is a matter of getting as much stuff as you can in the moment, making sure you don’t miss things and then figuring out how it’s all going to work as narrative in the edit. With documentaries, you try to get many things because you never know what you’re going to be able to get.
DA: In this last segment, I’d like to talk specifically about Appalachian film. Recently, there’s been a lot of backlash based on certain perceptions by people outside of Appalachia and people inside Appalachia. Specifically, there’s been a lot of criticism towards J.D. Vance’s writing with Hillbilly Elegy and the new Ron Howard film that was adapted from that. If you can, do you have any thoughts about this criticism or this perception?
ES: Yeah, I think that it’s important for us to tell our own stories, and Hillbilly Elegy is a great example of that. I absolutely understand the controversy around the memoir and the film, but I also think that too much energy put towards it can draw too much attention towards it, so I think we need to put our energy towards creating narratives that we want to see that we believe represents the diverse parts of Appalachia that we’re not seeing on screen and in books. I just encourage people to use whatever form they have whether it’s social media or not to expand the idea of what Appalachia is and that’s the only solution to all of this. You know, we’re never going to have the million dollar budget that Ron Howard had to make a “Hillbilly Elegy” rebuttal on Netflix, but we can all do our part by telling our own stories that complicate the narrative about Appalachia.
DA: As an Appalachian filmmaker, what responsibility do you feel you have about conveying a perception about Appalachia or at least trying to represent it as accurately as possible?
ES: It’s tough because I can only represent a small sliver, right? One film can only do one thing. I’m only one person and I’m a white woman who grew up in a coal mining family. That’s not everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of people who grew up in Appalachia and have no knowledge of coal, or they’re not white. They grew up in a completely different culture or community. So I am hamstrung from the get-go of telling a story that will sort of please everyone, so it’s good to know that before going into it. I just try to tell the stories that keep me up at night. That I feel are being over simplified. That I feel that people are sort of taking shortcuts to tell. Sometimes I feel like it’s both a privilege and a burden to be from a place like Appalachia because you’re constantly in this defense of the place, but you yourself are complicated by “how can we make images that are counter to the images that we see?” It’s a very tricky thing to do. Yeah, I feel the responsibility, but I also hope, like I said, that we can contribute to the storytelling. It’s not on me to tell Appalachia’s story because I can only tell the slice of life that I know. I just hope that other people feel encouraged to tell their slice of life so that we have a more diverse portrait of it.
DA: Thank you for that. Other than “King Coal” do you have any other projects you’re working on or anything else you’d like to share with us?
ES: I have some short things I’m working on. I’m mostly focusing now, this spring and last fall, I’ve been teaching, which has been really fun. I started teaching at the University of Tennessee and I’m teaching a documentary class and an ]introduction] to cinema class. I have a newsletter though, you can sign up for it on my website where I send everything I’m working on most of the time. I always have something going other than one big project. Right now, that other something has been teaching and that’s been a really fun project for me.
DA: Unfortunately, Elaine, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for joining. Remember you can watch “Tutwiler” on Youtube and PBS.org. You can follow us at the DA on Twitter and Instagram @DailyAthenaeum and you can catch up on the latest news at thedaonline.com. Elaine, thank you so much for joining me today. It was great speaking with you. Thanks to all of our live viewers.