Local filmmaker to premiere at Sundance

Jay FitzOur Town Arts

Filmmaker and University of Tennessee faculty member Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s King Coal will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance “Meet the Artist” video is here.

In a December 2022 announcement, Betsy DeGeorge, of the School of Art at UT, wrote to staff and students:

Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Sundance Film Festival 2023 has just announced the list of films that will be screened in-person and online from January 19-29. Elaine Sheldon’s feature film, King Coal, will have its world premiere as part of the “Next” section at the Sundance Festival.

Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, says, “Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.”

Sheldon, an assistant professor of cinema studies at UT’s School of Art, is a storyteller. Many of her stories take her viewers on rambling walks in the hills of West Virginia, where she spent her childhood. King Coal is a tale that digs into the very ground of her heritage, and the mines where her grandparents and uncles, brother and cousin worked.

She worked alongside producers Shane Boris, Diane Becker and Peggy Drexler in bringing this nonfiction story to the screen, DeGeorge wrote. The Sundance program describes the film:

“The cultural roots of coal continue to permeate the rituals of daily life in Appalachia even as its economic power wanes. The journey of a coal miner’s daughter exploring the region’s dreams and myths, untangling the pain and beauty, as her community sits on the brink of massive change.

“Central Appalachia is a place of mountains and myth. Director Elaine Sheldon knows this well, calling those mountains home. Coal has had a profound influence on this community’s identity, but Sheldon dares to consider what future stories might look like out of the shadow of coal, now that relationships to coal are changing. She takes us on an alluring cinematic journey through the past, present and future of Appalachia.

“Sheldon’s distinct vision remixes present-day moments of life in a coal-mining town with archival footage and atmospheric invocations of the land to alchemize something new – a rare, nuanced depiction of this community.

“A young girl learning the story of coal anchors the journey while Sheldon’s poetic voiceover guides us through the experience and an expressive score differentiates the reality of coal from a more imaginative world. The hybrid approach allows Sheldon to explore the act of storytelling itself and is a magical reclamation of the power of stories to shape how a region sees itself. The end of one story welcomes the beginning of another.”

Sheldon calls the support of Sundance “incredible” as she thanked those who helped “me get to this stage of finishing.” She has been working on the film since 2019.

watch the film

The premiere will be Monday, Jan. 23, at 1:30 p.m. EST at the Egyptian Theatre, Park City, Utah

The film will be available to view online from Jan. 24 at 10 a.m. until Jan. 30 at 1:55 a.m.

Featured in Torchbearer

Sheldon was featured in a 2021 Torchbearer Magazine article by Brian Canever.

Canever says Sheldon, then 33, was never supposed to go back home. After graduating from West Virginia University in Morgantown, she headed to Boston for an MFA at Emerson College. She wanted to be like Katie Couric and Oprah. “I imagined myself working for some place like the New York Times, in their video unit or abroad,” she told Canever.

But the longer she was away from home, the more Sheldon realized she had to go back to tell the story right.

He writes: In 2013, Sheldon released her first notable film, Hollow, an interactive documentary about the everyday lives of residents of McDowell County, West Virginia. She had filmed Hollow as an MFA student and it won her a Peabody Award, her first major honor.

In 2017, Sheldon’s Netflix short documentary Heroin(e), about three women – a judge, a missionary and a fire chief – combating the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, earned an Emmy award and an Oscar nomination.

A year later, Netflix also produced her full-length documentary Recovery Boys, about the lives of four men in an inpatient substance abuse treatment program on a West Virginia farm.

In June 2020, Sheldon moved to Knoxville to join UT’s faculty.

Paul Harrill, co-chair of the cinema studies program, told Canever that Sheldon was coming in at ground level to “teach the art of nonfiction to students across disciplines – filmmakers, studio artists, journalists, poets – in a region she has dedicated her career to advocating for.”

And now Sheldon advocates for her program: “We have an opportunity here to tell stories that go unnoticed. … Appalachia is a place rich with stories worth telling.”

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