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Before the Mountain Was Moved (1970)

A group of poor people in Raleigh County, West Virginia organize when strip mining is damaging their houses and community. They work to get the state legislature to pass some strong laws protecting citizens against coal mining interests.

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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 1 nomination. See more awards »

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A group of poor people in Raleigh County, West Virginia organize when strip mining is damaging their houses and community. They work to get the state legislature to pass some strong laws protecting citizens against coal mining interests.

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Documentary | Drama

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March 1970 (USA)  »

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A snapshot of the early days of strip mining activism.
9 February 2013 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

As a West Virginian, viewing this film is both very inspiring and very, very sad. The inspiring part is how many dedicated activists there were, some from outside the state, who were willing to work long, hard hours to protect the people from the impacts of greed. It was fantastic to see my hometown, Charleston, from above back then and to see the State Capitol looking essentially the same (but sans Lincoln statue).

From a legal standpoint, this was a decade before the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act ("SMCRA")and it is about how the milestone 1967 West Virginia Surface Mining Reclamation Act was enacted. The documentary follows a small group of citizens from Raleigh County who went up against the coal lobby and got the strongest law on the books in any U.S. state up to that point. The film demonstrates well how bad situations can inspire individuals to act outside their comfort zone for a cause they strongly believe in.

As a film, it is short enough to tell the simple story it needs to tell, and does so in a way that generally works well, walking us from getting people to show up to an informational meeting, to speaking at the meeting, and ultimately, to lobbying in Charleston. There was a fascinating discussion on the anti-strip mining activists' drive to Charleston about racial equality (two of the activists were black, while the other handful of activists were white). I thought that the film did not showcase the large scale aspect of strip mining, although maybe strip mining was just starting t be done, so the striking images in the Gates's In Memory of the Land and People (1977) were not available. This film had a sequence that, I thought, showed how valley fills become mudslides in an artful way.

My greatest criticism to the filmmaking was that I wish I didn't have to do research on the internet (something that filmgoers back then would not have been able to do, obviously) to learn that the younger activists were part of Appalachian Volunteers. In the film, Naomi Weintraub alluded to "we" and "other issues," but some context would have been nice. I gather that they were using tax dollars through the Office of Economic Opportunity to fund the film, so perhaps they didn't want to attract too much attention.

There is a certain naiveté to the subjects, but that is only because of the hindsight that we know now. The Act, which gave great powers to regulators over the coal industry, was not strongly enforced and coal companies were able to continue to do the destructive mining that they did before its enaction. From what I can gather, I think the movement would have somewhat of a schism over whether to push for complete abolition of strip mining or for federal regulation. The latter won out, with the SMCRA in 1977. Of course, that too would prove to be inadequate due to a loophole for large-scale mountaintop removal. But that's a story for a later decade.

If you are interested in the origins of the fight against mountaintop removal and the evolution of the attitudes of Appalachians, I highly recommend the film.


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