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'The Last Mountain' to Make Local Debut during Arts Festival

on July 16, 2011 8:26 AM

In the green hills of West Virginia, people have something to say.

Polling shows a vast disconnect between their views -- largely opposed to the destruction wrought by dramatic-scale coal-mining -- and the coal-happy policies pushed by their state politicians, as film editor Jessie Beers-Altman has discovered.

"They don't feel like they're getting the representation in government that they should be," said Beers-Altman, of Boston, who grew up in the State College area. " ... And the media don't give them that much of a voice."

But a new activist documentary that's playing at the State Theatre this month -- "The Last Mountain" -- has taken a big step in reversing that trend. Having opened in New York and Washington, D.C., on June 3, the 95-minute film chronicles rural West Virginians' public -- and emotional -- battle to save Coal River Mountain from industrial-scale mining.

Their goal: to bring an electricity-producing wind farm to the area instead.

"It's objective in terms of trying to present the facts," Beers-Altman said of the documentary, for which she worked as assistant editor. "But absolutely -- it advocates for one side, and that side is not the coal industry. ...

"It's not saying the coal industry is evil or bad," she went on. But it does illustrate the environmental, human-health and political problems associated with coal, "and how they affect us all," she said.

Beers-Altman, a 2000 State College Area High School graduate who has degrees from Georgetown and Boston universities, played a pivotal role in bringing "The Last Mountain" to the State Theatre. State College is one of about 50 cities and towns where the documentary is showing.

Its first screening at the State Theatre is slated for 4 p.m. Saturday -- coinciding with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Additional showings are scheduled to continue through Thursday.

Recognized nationally in a positive New York Times review, "The Last Mountain" made its public debut at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival -- in Park City, Utah -- in January. Documentary producer Eric Grunebaum, with Uncommon Productions in Boston, said the filmmakers are very happy with how much the film is being screened nationwide.

The initial spark for the project, he said, came from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s 2004 book "Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy."

"I think it's fair to say that we don't need a lot of regulation, but we need smart regulation," Grunebaum said in a phone interview Friday. "Businesses are in business to make money, not to protect the health of the community."

The Kennedy book highlights, in part, the coal industry, identifying how and why the practice of burning coal to make electricity is hazardous to human health and to the environment.

Kennedy himself plays a central role in "The Last Mountain," as he supports community activists in their fight against Massey Energy. Massey, in a struggle yet to be resolved, is intent on opening up Coal River Mountain for mountaintop removal -- a coal-mining practice that blows up huge chunks of the landscape.

"It really is about human health and what we allow industries to do to health," Grunebaum said of the documentary, made over the course of three to four years.

But "the beauty of this story is that folks in Coal River Valley recognize that we need energy, that we need solutions," he said. "It's not just about stopping something. It's about starting something."

That something, as Beers-Altman underscored, is wind power. She said about a third of the documentary -- the last third -- is all about wind-driven electricity and the alternatives that it offers.

"This is something that I personally love about the film," Beers-Altman said. "I don't always endorse or get behind a project as much as I do with this one."

Working on the documentary has inspired her to change her own life, she said. Her residential power provider in Boston offers a wind-power option -- allowing residents to receive their electricity from wind turbines rather than via the standard power grid.

Beers-Altman and her boyfriend have signed up for the wind-power alternative. It adds about $20 a month to their bill, she said.

"It doesn't seem like much" of a step, Beers-Altman said. "But it's one of those things: If everyone signed on to" it, the overall change could be dramatic.

The official trailer for "The Last Mountain" is posted below.

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