Front Row at the Movies
"Moving Mountains" Is a Moving Movie
Exclusive Interview by Shirrel Rhoades
Penny Loeb set out to write an article about coal mining for U.S. News & World Report and ended up making a movie. It only took her 17 years.
The article morphed into a book ("Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal") and then a screenplay and finally an award-winning independent film starring actress Theresa Russell.
"Moving Mountains" will be screened on Sunday at the Tropic Cinema. Producer-screenwriter Penny Loeb and the film’s editor Kevin Rhoades will be on hand for a Q&A following the showing.
This film offers a different kind of role for Theresa Russell. You’ve seen her in movies ranging from "The Razor’s Edge" to "Black Widow," "Wild Things" to "Spider-Man 3." Here she plays a coal miner’s wife named Trish Bragg. Think: Erin Brockovich. Bragg is a real-life heroine who stood up to a billion-dollar coal company whose deep mines were polluting the water supply of Pie, West Virginia.
"A friend of mine was looking for a place to build," Trish Bragg tells the story. "I found her a lot next door to my house, up this holler between two mountains, but there wasn’t no water in the well. That didn’t sit well with me. Several of us were having water trouble. At one point we had 49 wells down in our community. Some of the folks were little ol’ people with third grade educations. They didn’t know what to do."
"It was the result of deep mining," Trish Bragg nods. "But the coal company was very rude, said they didn’t have any responsibility."
When Penny Loeb first visited the southern West Virginia coalfields she was "astounded by the destruction of a historic community." A 20-story dragline shovel called Big John was hanging off a mountain above the houses, timber was clean-cut, mountaintops sheared off, and the water polluted. Dozen of burnt homes attested to the families who had fled the area.
Bragg and her neighbors went to see the Department of Environmental Protection. "It’s the squeaky wheel that gets to the oil, they told us." So before you know it, she had earned herself the nickname, "Mouth of the South."
"I’d taught Sunday school for many years, so I knew how to educate. I began teaching people how to protest." They challenged a long-held mindset in Appalachia, that "one simply does not fight the coal mining company."
"I had threats on the phone, coal trucks ran me off the road, and people followed me." Was she scared? "Absolutely."
"These companies are powerful entities with finances, machinery, and the backing of government," she says. "But fight back we did."
A lawsuit was named after her: Bragg vs. Robertson. It cleared the way for the community having more rights against the coal companies.
"Along the way, we made friends, lost some; laws changed for the betterment of coalfield citizens and built strong relationships with government offices we had feared to enter before. We were on a mission!"
Pie community now has public water. The coal companies provided some of the money for the new system.
"I’m not against mining," Trish Bragg says. "My husband was a coal miner. He belonged to the United Mine Workers. I’m against irresponsible mining."
Penny Loeb’s "Moving Mountains" documents that quixotic quest. "Struggles over mining continue in West Virginia," she says, "But ‘Moving Mountains’ shows that, sometimes, victories emerge." You can find out more at www.movingmountainsthemovie.com.