On Monday night, USC students gathered at the Wallis Annenberg Hall Auditorium for a screening of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes. The film, which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, was produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies and RadicalMedia.
Journalism professor Mary Murphy moderated the post-screening Q&A session with documentary producer and professor Dan Birman, and Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, who also appeared as an expert in the documentary.
The documentary portrays both sides of the story thoroughly. The stories the directors and producers chose to tell were curated to provide an accurate depiction of the “war on coal” in the United States. It examines the effects of coal mining in totality — the good, the bad and the ugly.
As coal becomes a more political topic in the U.S., the people whose lives are affected by it are determined to have their voices heard. The economic necessity of coal mining devastated families in mining towns after activist groups and lawsuits shut down coal factories. Others were upset that pollutants were contaminating their air and water, causing asthma and increased risk of cancer. States became divided over the best way to ensure future economic success — some senators insisted that the demand for coal would soon rise again, while others felt that they needed to create jobs in new industries to adapt to the 21st century economy.
From the Ashes also examines the politics behind this issue, with clips of President Donald Trump’s speeches interspersed throughout the film. Footage was added during the final stages of production to include more relevant context.
“Most of the documentary was finished before the election,” Murphy said.
Other contributors to the documentary include Carl Pope, an environmentalist and author; Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University; and Brandon Dennison, founder of Coalfield Development Corporation.
“As a region, we’re not ashamed of powering this country for a hundred years,” Dennison said in the documentary. “We’re proud of that and we should be proud of that. But I think that we’re waking up to the realization that if we’re going to survive, we’re going to have to adapt.”
The film ends with hopeful messages regarding the transition to alternative energy and the success of advocacy groups against coal mining.
“The best way to honor the sacrifice of the people in Appalachia is to build a diverse economy that sustains the generations,” Hitt said.
After the film, Birman, Hitt and Murphy discussed the journalistic elements of the production as well as its impact on viewers.
“[While] telling a story that has social impact, we better be entertaining the audience, even with an documentary,” Birman said. “And the way that gets done is … you bring people who could articulate those issues efficiently.”
Getting the right sources proved to be difficult at times. However, Hitt noted that Bloomberg Philanthropies’ willingness to provide information gave her a reason to be a part of the documentary.
“How much people will tell you is directly related to how much they trust you to tell their story,” she said.
The journalistic and artistic aspects of the documentary resulted in a thought-provoking experience affecting audiences around the world, in cities like Paris, whose mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is a friend of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ founder Michael Bloomberg.
Regarding the documentary, Hitt reminded viewers that “stories don’t end,” as discussions on coal mining will continue in the midst of its politicization.