Last Wednesday, October 14, I had the pleasure of seeing “Overburden,” a documentary by Chad A. Stevens. The film centers the struggle of two West Virginia women as they try to bring down Massey Energy, a company whose ‘profit over safety’ policy led to the deaths of 29 coal miners in April 2010.
Overburden was a ‘labor of love,’ filmed over 7 years and with the kind of dedication only a truly passionate documentary filmmaker can have for his subject. Stevens brings us to West Virginia with an array of techniques, including many nature shots, time lapse, still photography, and most of all – through the footage he gets of his subjects, Betsy Harrah and Lorelei Scarbro. To be able to get such intimate portraits of two people in a small, isolated mining town which is generally suspicious of outsiders is itself impressive. Stevens gets some great shots and footage of both women and the burdens they carry as they try to fight a company that rules the Appalachia, showing how much of a David and Goliath it really is.
With effective and carefully selected voice overs, Stevens is able to have the women narrate the story with grace and ease. Additionally, the interviews he conducts probe into parts of their lives which would otherwise never be heard outside of coal country. It is particularly this access he manages to get, and the amazing moments it produces, that drew me in and got me hooked into an issue I had never had particular knowledge or interest in before.
In every shot, the viewer gets the sense of how much time, energy, and sacrifice went into bringing Overburden to life. I can’t even imagine how many days were invested in certain shots that probably didn’t even make up a few seconds of video. The same goes with the material he gathered from his interviews; I am sure that there were probably many days where his subjects just didn’t want to talk, or didn’t want him around, which may have brought the project to a standstill without his persistence.
Along with covering his subjects in West Virginia, Stevens follows them and covers them as they rally in Washington D.C. He takes risks with his own freedom (such as by getting arrested while filming the protest on Coal River Mountain) and exposes himself to an industry that very clearly does not want him there.
My biggest takeaway is that real effort, real passion and real dedication to the craft will produce amazing results, and if most documentary filmmakers have the love Stevens has for his work, we could see a truly great age of documentary journalism and filmmaking.