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Documentary Quickshots #5

Blood on the Mountain (2016; Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans & Jordan Freeman)

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Republican candidate Donald Trump (now the 45th President of the United States, which will never feel right to say, write, or read) won West Virginia by the largest margin in the state’s history. There could arguably be any number of reasons for this lopsided result, beginning (and, if we’re being frank, likely ending) with the fact that the state’s population is 93% white and Trump’s campaign modulated its harsh, cynical messaging firmly in the direction of what is referred to with euphemistic generalization as “white nationalism” (which means that whites get a nation and non-whites do not). Perhaps even more regionally vital, however, was Trump’s frequent (and disingenuous) promises to reverse the slow death spiral of West Virginia’s coal mining industry. Coal is the defining factor of life in much of West Virginia, and for its people, “Make American Great Again” translated as “Make Coal Mining Great Again”.

Blood on the Mountain documents the history of coal mining in West Virginia, and stops just chronologically short of Trump’s huckster pitch to undo an inevitable decline (coal is a highly finite resource, after all). Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman’s dark record strongly asserts that despite the pride it inspires and the decent living it granted to many working-class West Virginians, coal mining has always been a grim, destructively exploitative business that pitilessly shreds both human labourers and the environment on its way to profit. It’s also been central to West Virginia’s economy, politics, society, and history. But “bringing it back” would carry as many negative consequences as positive outcomes.

Blood on the Mountain begins its chronicle with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history and one that has been mostly scrubbed from West Virginian history (including its Wikipedia page). From there, the film takes in the full terrible scope of coal mining in the state, from environmental degradation to malignant corporate control, taking in large-scale mining disasters and health epidemics (black lung and silicosis being the most common). Crooked on-the-take politicians, belligerent labor leaders, and self-dealing capitalists alike have either been unable to break the meat-grinder cycle of coal extraction, or have elected not to in order to personally profit from it.

As coal reserves have been depleted, large mining companies have largely cut out unionized miners and taken to simply levelling the tops of mountains and scooping out all the coal, leaving blasted landscapes behind them. But Blood on the Mountain demonstrates that West Virginia’s social and human landscape is left no less blasted by the coal industry that promotes itself as the state’s guardian and provider of economic succour (like many such documentaries, Big Coal’s vagaries are microcosms of the larger vagaries of American capitalism).

Moreover, it considers the ongoing plight of the state’s coal miners and their dependents to be an invisible tragedy that has attracted little attention from media or policymakers beyond Appalachia, a tendency that the film looks to remedy. Little wonder that a racial demagogue’s cynical recognition of their struggles and dishonest pledges to address them resonated so clearly with West Virginians. Finally, someone in a position of power spoke to their concerns. Unfortunately, that someone is Donald Trump, who cannot want anything more from West Virginians than the renewed exploitation of their prime mineral resource, and their nearly-spent human resources as well.

Casting JonBenet (2017; Directed by Kitty Green)

If the coal industry’s denuding of West Virginia is a story that has received too little attention from the American media, then the sordid, tabloid-ready, persistently unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year-old child-beauty-pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in her family home in Boulder, Colorado received far too much. This was the convoluted, troubling case that launched a thousand hours of speculative exposés, “exclusive” interviews with anyone even tenuously connected to the Ramseys, and prepared the cable news ground for the predatory tread of frothing sensationalist judgemental ghouls like Nancy Grace.

It may not have been more important or had an impact more lasting than any other such true-crime mass obsession driven by similar broadcasting forces, but the death of JonBenet Ramsey was weirdly compelling and unsettling in ways that rival tabloid crime stories were not. It suggested darkness and twisted madness in the cocoon of privilege: JonBenet’s father was a successful CEO, her (now deceased) mother a former beauty queen who was, from all appearances, maniacally seeking to vicarious fulfill her pageant ambitions by exhibiting her very young daughter in a manner that many observers found disturbing or even abusive. Wild home intruder theories of her death imagined child rapists, a former housekeeper, and even a local Santa Claus invading the family home to take the girl’s life. JonBenet’s brother Burke has been suspected of accidentally killing his sister, although police investigations have dismissed that possibility. A thoroughly bizarre, likely fake ransom note has sparked extensive theorizing and analysis from armchair detective and purported experts alike. Above all, the lack of closure, the absence of a solution to this enigma even two decades later, has left the public fascinated, like an unfinished mystery novel whose author expired before naming the murderer. A permanent whodunit.

Kitty Green’s innovative and frequently striking meta-documentary Casting JonBenet takes the JonBenet Ramsey case as a Rorschach test for its multiple subjects’ perspectives on her death, but also on their lives and on the wider world. Ostensibly interviewing and screen-testing local Boulder-area actors for filmed re-enactments of the events surrounding the girl’s mysterious death, Green’s film takes on the absorbing weirdness of a Werner Herzog documentary as the idiosyncratic details of the actors’ lives trespass on and meld with their connections to and conceptions about the Ramsey saga. The actors can be hilariously eccentric (like a bondsman who moonlights as a sex educator with a S&M speciality, or various local Santas, who share snatches of detail of their singular profession that tease a potential documentary on the subject), but they can also be weirdly moving, opening up about their own struggles and traumas as windows to their understanding of the Ramsey saga.

Green concludes her film with a flourish of near-avant-garde artistry. Ostensibly, the screen tests and chats with the actors are supposed to fill roles in filmed re-enactments of the events are JonBenet Ramsey’s death. Some of these are peppered through the film (the erotic-educating bond officer gets his coveted role as Boulder’s police chief), true. But by the end of the film, in place of conventional true-crime documentary re-enactment sequences Green combines all of the actors in a rambling series of room sets, re-creating every theory of JonBenet’s end from the plausible to the outlandish, all at once. These fantasy vignettes bleed into each other, just as the actors’ lived experience bleeds into their performances, just as their perspectives based on that experience bleed into their view of the Ramsey saga. It’s an excellent symbolic summation of the popular discourse around JonBenet Ramsey and all media crime sagas of its type, and how what observers bring to that discourse inescapably shapes it.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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