Documentary project looks at transition from coal in Appalachia and Wales

Guest blog by filmmaker Tom Hansell, on his ongoing project After Coal.

After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities explores how two mining cultures face the challenge of their dependence on fossil fuels.  The Welsh coalfields essentially shut down during the 1980’s, forcing local communities to develop new strategies to rebuild their communities.  As the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that the Appalachian coalfields are entering their last generation of mining, this documentary will help mountain communities map directions to a sustainable future after coal.

“Given the issues going on around the Appalachian coalfields right now, we need to look at what has happened in Wales since the closing of the mines from about 1986 on,” said Pat Beaver, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University. “The experience of Wales could add a sense of urgency to thinking about the future of our region.”

To find out more, visit the project’s website.

Photo: Welsh miners interviewed by John Gaventa in 1976

Appalachia and Welsh mining communities are linked through historic migration and recent exchanges.  During 1974 -1976 Appalachian scholar Helen Lewis, along with political scientist John Gaventa and filmmaker Richard Greatrex, made over 150 videotapes of life in the Welsh coalfields, including cultural events and interviews.  Lewis’s research in South Wales culminated in a 1979 exchange between Welsh and Appalachian coal miners sponsored by the Highlander Center and supported by Appalachian State University.  Recently Lewis archived the Welsh videotapes in ASU’s Appalachian Collection archives, where they have been digitized and catalogued.

Filmmaker Tom Hansell, who works with Appalshop and Appalachian State University, is using these rarely seen videotapes to start a new documentary project called After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities.

Hansell saysThe central question I want to investigate is: What happens when fossil fuels such as coal and oil are depleted? How do miners and other working people create more sustainable livelihoods?”  To answer these questions, Hansell plans to revisit the Welsh communities documented during the 1970’s and talk with residents about their transition from coal.   

The project has an impressive list of advisors, including Dr. Helen Lewis, considered the “grandmother” of Appalachian Studies, John Gaventa, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship for his work on sustainable economic development, and Dr. Hwyel Francis, a Welsh labor historian and Member of Parliament.

In an interview with WMMT radio reporter Sylvia Ryerson, Hwyel Francis explained how after the mines closed in Wales, government support was key to economic transition.

“There should be lifelong learning opportunities for those people who change their careers – whether voluntarily or whether it’s compulsory,” said Francis. “And in the case of the serious economic dislocation caused by mass pit closures, then there ought to be proper educational training opportunities within those communities, within travelling distance.”