In early June, a former student of mine tagged me in a link she posted about a Kickstarter project for an Appalachian documentary film project called In the Hills and HollowsThe film “provides an intimate look inside the lives of several West Virginia residents living in the middle of the boom and how their quality of life has changed by this industry. The film also explores the lives of residents who have become refugees, forced to leave their home, and the place they love as a result.”

Within a few minutes of reading about the project and watching the video, I’d donated to the film and exchanged a few emails with the director, Keely Kernan, an award-winning photographer and documentarian from Pennsylvania. Kernan has already met her $10,000 fundraising goal, however, that just covers the cost of shooting the film. In order to get started on post-production and editing, she and her small team need to raise another $10,000.

Her Kickstarter ends on June 19, 2015, so the time to donate is now.

There are two reasons I was drawn to this project:

  1. I’m a fan of creative people creating stories about the Appalachian region.
  2. I’m a big supporter of professionals taking control of their storytelling, and using social and emerging technologies to connect with fans and distribute their work. This doesn’t ensure that the story will be great, but it does remove some of the layers of interference that come in more corporate environments.

What follows is my conversation with Keely about her life, her work, and her film.

A bit about Keely

Tell me a bit about where you were born + your professional background.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania, near the border of Maryland and West Virginia. My childhood was spent combing the vast mountain forest that surrounded our home. I graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art where I studied painting and photography. After working as a photographer for several years I started making multimedia projects and short film to tell more in-depth stories. As a filmmaker I am dedicated to producing work that enlightens people about relevant social and environmental topics. I have overseen the production of short films for various institutions and nonprofit organizations and have worked on independent projects nationally and internationally.

The question I’m always interested in is this: When was the moment you realized you wanted to tell stories about Appalachia?  Your work seems to be focused a great deal on the environment and its relation to Appalachia. Why have you gravitated towards that as the best lens or vehicle to tell the story of the region?

The moment I decided I wanted to make this film and focus on stories about what is taking place here occurred after learning about the history of what has happened in the past with the coal industry and the enormity of what is currently taking place with the gas boom.

When I moved here in 2013 I wanted to produce work that was narrated by citizens who actually lived here. As a filmmaker I have always preferred first person narratives. Often times people from Appalachia have been stereotyped and underrepresented in the media. I hope that by producing the film in this way it helps give residents a voice.

As a filmmaker I think the motivation for the stories I focus on come from my experiences working and traveling in places where the effects of climate change are visible. West Virginia is ground zero for fossil fuel extraction therefore I think it is at the forefront of the topic. Currently instead of seeing a transition from the coal economy, that has dominated much of the landscape, to renewable energy what we are seeing is a transition from coal to natural gas. Also, some of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountain systems on the continent encompass West Virginia. It is not only an incredibly beautiful place but it is also a headwater state. A place where rivers are born. Fresh water is becoming a precious resource throughout the world. One of the many topics that is highlighted in the film is how the process of hydraulic fracturing involves removing millions of gallons of fresh water from local rivers and aquifers. This water is permanently removed from the water cycle. The water is exposed to chemicals and pressurized to extract natural gas.

A Q&A about Kernan’s Film

What was the genesis for In the Hills and Hollows? Coal and its complex relationship with the region isn’t new. But this story seems less about the business of coal, and more about the the relationship of the people who live and work with it

The film really focuses on the lives of homeowners who have been affected by the gas boom and juxtaposes the boom and bust history of the coal industry. Ultimately, the genesis of the film came about because there is a need to tell the story and I hope that by documenting what is taking place here inspires an urgent conversation about the situation we are facing not only as a region but as a nation.

Here is a coal versus natural gas comparison: In the southern part of the state the counties that produce the most coal are some of the poorest counties in the United States. As the coal industry became mechanized and transitioned from underground coal mining to mountaintop removal mining, employment drastically declined. The environmental destruction of hundreds of mountains and valleys, along with thousands of miles of headwater streams, as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining, is evident throughout southern West Virginia. Similarly, in the north, where the natural gas boom is taking place, mountains are being blasted away to create flat platforms to build large scale well pads for hydraulic fracking and swaths of forest are clear cut to make way for large natural gas pipelines. In many ways we can look at coal to understand what the future of natural gas will be for the environment and the communities that live here.

So you decide this is a thing. So now let’s talk about why you chose to go at this independently. One of the reasons I have used Kickstarter for Appalachia projects is I don’t trust that more corporate media is interested in portrayals of the region that don’t conform to stereotypes. (See any reality television program.) Why did you come to Kickstarter?

The film is being made independently because it is really the only way to tell the story and document the reality of what is taking place. Because mainstream news and large media corporations are not giving residents a voice the urgency is at an all time high for independent filmmakers to ensure these stories are heard by mass audiences. We decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding to continue filming throughout the summer and begin post production in the fall.

One of the ideas I’ve discussed here at The Geeky Press is professionalized amateurism, which is the notion that these projects are done with the same level of critical rigor that any studio or production company might bring. Tell me about your team and your process?

In the Hills and Hollows began production in May of 2014. Since that time hundreds of hours have been spent on the ground researching, connecting with communities throughout West Virginia, and shooting the film. As a filmmaker my process really involves hanging out as long as possible and getting to know the characters I am documenting so I can capture their lives and reality more intimately.

As a writer, I feel a great deal of freedom to pursue my craft on many levels: blogging, professionalized amateurism, and traditional routes. But I feel more empowered knowing how the whole process works. As a filmmaker and photographer, now that you have started going through the Kickstarter and crowdfunding process — from pulling this project together all the way through developing it with independent financing — how has that changed the way you think about filmmaking, your career, and your next projects?

Launching the kickstarter has really been an incredible experience. We have received a lot of support and positive feedback about the film from people all over the country and the world. I think what makes the whole crowd-funding process important and special is that is gives the public the opportunity to support the film and help make it happen. It allows for community investment which always makes a project stronger. It means a lot to have the public support a film such as this because we are all connected to this story as citizens living in a world dependent on fossil fuels.

As a filmmaker the process of developing, In the Hills and Hollows and financing it has opens up possibilities for how I will produce future films. It has also reinforced the direction I want to head in as a filmmaker which is to continue working on stories that matter and that need to be told.

About In the Hills and Hollows

In the Hills and Hollows investigates the boom and bust impacts that mono-economies based on fossil fuel extraction have on local communities. It provides an intimate look inside the lives of several West Virginia residents living in the middle of the boom and how their quality of life has changed by this industry. The film also explores the lives of residents who have become refugees, forced to leave their home, and the place they love as a result.

The Team

Keely Kernan: Filmmaker, Director, Producer1

Lawrence Cumbo: Executive Producer2

Lorraine Norrgard: Advisor3

Prapasara Tubhirun: Assistant Editor4

To date In the Hills and Hollows is sponsored in part by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Civil Society Institute. A Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise additional funds needed in order to continue producing the film. For a list of Kickstarter rewards and pledge levels, visit hillshollowsdoc.com.  Contributors have the opportunity to receive various rewards that include prints from the film, music from bluegrass musician Ben Townsend, art work from West Virginia artist Mike Costello special thanks in the end credits of the film, and much more. Those making the most significant contributions will receive credit as an associate producer, producer, or executive producer. Organizations also have the opportunity to receive official sponsorship credit with their name and logo in the end credits of the film.

  1. Keely Kernan is an award winning documentary filmmaker dedicated to producing films that enlighten and empower people about relevant social and environmental issues. As a storyteller she is driven by a desire to connect the viewer and inspire conversations that will influence and initiate reform. Kernan has overseen the production of films for various institutions and non-profit organizations. Her work has been published by numerous outlets including CCTV Africa, Green Peace, Strobist, and Forbes Magazine. []
  2. Lawrence Cumbo is an Executive Producer. He has delivered over 200 hours of programming for Smithsonian Channel, National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery, TLC, A&E. and BIO Channel. Cumbo served as an Executive Producer for overseas giants Tiger Aspect Productions and Natural History New Zealand. In 1999, Cumbo was offered a staff position with National Geographic Television and Film, and by 2005, he had been appointed Senior Producer with National Geographic Specials and Events Production.  In 2002, Cumbo filmed, wrote, and produced Search for the Afghan Girl, the headline-making story of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, whose photograph first appeared on the cover of the National Geographic magazine in 1985. The film was nominated for an Emmy and has won several awards, including a CINE Golden Eagle Award and a Gold World Medal at the New York Festivals.  Other films he made for National Geographic Explorer include Arkansas Anaconda, Through These Eyes, Special Forces: On the Frontlines, Mothers Behind Bars and One Wild Ride: Yukon to Yellowstone. []
  3. Directed/Produced/ and written 36 documentary films that have aired on PBS and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in Canada. She won an individual Regional Emmy award for Directing, and four additional Regional Emmy Awards for Waasa Inaabidaa – We Look In All Directions, a six hour PBS series on the history of the Ojibwe. She has won numerous other awards including:  the Spirit Award for Best of the Indian Summer Film Festival, Producers Award and Best Documentary film multiple times at the San Francisco American Indian Film Festival, Best Documentary in New York’s Wind and Glacial Voices Festival, Best Documentary at Red Earth American Indian Film Fest, Taos Talking Picture Fest, Two Rivers Film Festival, Fargo International Film Festival, Silver Images Film festival, Women in Film Festival, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, among others.  She was awarded a fellowship in the Women in the Director’s Chair Academy of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and the Producers Academy of the Public Broadcasting Service at WGBH in Boston. []
  4. Tubhirun attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, where she graduated with a concentration in documentary photography and multimedia. While attending the Salt Institute, Pang produced a short documentary titled, Undocumented. In August of 2014, Undocumented was chosen to be featured in The Atlantic Monthly’s curated showcase of short films on their online format. Pang’s work has been featured in several media outlets such as Looking at Appalachia’s online archive, as well as it’s traveling exhibition. []