Featured

Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A provocative documentary about the economic geography of a West Virginia mountain town. It was fantastic! I’m still thinking about it.” – Dr. Bob Ross, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

“These Are Slow, Weird Days” — In Covid-19 Crisis, Restaurants in Moundsville, WV Cope With Layoffs, Takeout, Bandanas Instead of Masks — Chinese Buffet Closed — Shortage of To-Go Containers

IMG_1217
Alex Martinez, Acapulco Mexican Restaurant

When we were shooting Moundsville, our favorite places to eat were the New Great Chinese Buffet and Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, both on Lafayette Ave, and Bob’s Diner, where we shot some scenes, on 3rd street. (The other options were fast food joints like Burger King and McDonald’s.) Dave loved the Reuben at Bob’s, and I devoured the roast pork fried rice at New Great Chinese, and the taco salad at Acapulco.

I called these three smaller, privately-held restaurants, two of them owned by immigrants, to find out how they’re coping with the coronavirus pandemic. A couple weeks ago, West Virginia ordered all restaurants to close to customers. With an elderly and disease-heavy population, the state faces a risk of widespread coronavirus fatalities.

The Chinese buffet is closed, an answering machine message explained, “until further notice, thank you for your understanding and stay safe.” It is not a great time to operate a germ-spreading buffet, and there have been reports across the U.S. of harassment of Asian Americans. I left a message and haven’t heard back.

At Bob’s Diner, opened (by a man named Bob) in 1947, owner Gary Workman has retained a couple cooks, a driver, and somebody to answer the phone.  The restaurant is making around 50 meals a day, far below the usual. Workman said he can handle “a couple more months of this, but after that, I don’t know.”

The biggest challenge, he said, has been finding enough to-go containers, after lockdown forced all restaurants to transition to takeout.

Acapulco, which Isaias Martinez, an immigrant from the Tamaulipas region in Mexico opened in 2000, has had to lay off “16 or 17” people, said Alex Martinez, his son, who appears in our film. A small, skeleton crew of cooks, cashiers and deliverers is still taking, making and sending out orders of fish tacos, grilled chicken salads and other favorites.

“These are slow, weird days,” Alex told me. In the film, Martinez, now 26, is a voice of reason, reflecting on how working-class Americans of different backgrounds share much more with each other than with the wealthy of their own groups.

“When you’re young in America, they teach you that whatever happens in the rest of the world, like famine, pandemics and wars, it doesn’t happen here,” he said this week. “Well, now it’s happened here, and nobody’s ready.”

The restaurant is pulling in 30 to 50 takeout customers a day, down from a couple hundred a day in normal times. “If it keeps going like this, we’ll be fine,” he said. “We are employing fewer people, and those we let go had to file for unemployment.” They can keep buying supplies and making food people need to eat.

Working the register, Martinez has been wearing a bandana he folds four times. He wasn’t able to find any protective masks in town. “There still are a lot of people who are uninformed and who aren’t that careful about spreading germs when they come in to make an order,” he said. “When you do any kind of service job, you’re on the front lines.”

When we first met a few years ago, Martinez had been thinking about college and medical school. Now, he’s decided the debt wouldn’t be worth it, and wants to pursue a short training course in computer programming instead. “We’re definitely going to be in an economic depression after this,” he said. “I don’t think college is worth it, unless the government steps in and make it affordable.”

Martinez is worried about racism against his Chinese restaurant neighbors down the road. “There needs to be huge systemic change in this country,” he said. “Who knows? It could happen. This country is so unpredictable.”

John W. Miller

How Moundsville, WV Made A Poet — Interview with Paterson Prize Finalist Carrie Conners — Even in Hard Times, “Joy and Humor and Life Keep Happening”

CConners_ID

Carrie Conners was born in Moundsville, WV in 1979, and is now a professional poet who teaches at La Guardia Community College-City University of New York.

This week, her collection Luscious Struggle (which you can buy here or here or here) was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize.

Growing up on Jefferson Ave, a stone’s throw from the prehistoric native American burial bound and the state prison, was an ideal formation for a poet.

In second grade, Conners said, her class was assigned to write a poem about the mound. Most of the kids rhymed words with the subject, going round and round on their way to the top.

“I wrote a two-page dark thing about Indians who were buried there,” she said.  Around that time, she started reading Stephen King: “I got interested in the macabre because of the mound and because of the penitentiary.”

In addition, Conners’ mom worked with West Virginia state poet laureate Marc Harshman, a star of our documentary, and he remains a mentor.

Even living in New York, Conners is a proud West Virginian. “I get annoyed at the way people in West Virginia are portrayed as lazy” or not smart, she said. “People are hard-working, even if it means helping others when jobs aren’t available.” Like other writers with ties to the region, she “hate-read” JD Vance’s stereotype-laden Hillbilly Elegy. “I grew up with some of the cleverest people I know.”

Not surprisingly, even though Conners left Moundsville for college in Pittsburgh when she was 18, a bunch of her poems sound notes from her hometown. “Growing up in Moundsville was a gift,” she said. “I could never not write about it.”

The region has a rich language and storytelling tradition, said Conners. “And my dad was a steelworker, so I heard a lot of colorful language growing up.”

For example, here is Sex Ed:

After my mom declared You’re just showing off when I asked at 12 years old if my bras had shrunk in the dryer I started going lingerie shopping with my former babysitter. On break from college, she’d pick me up in The Banana, her decomposing Volkswagen Rabbit—one day the turn signal wand snapped off in her hand at a Stop sign by the old Fostoria factory—and she’d drive us to the Stone & Thomas in Wheeling with my mom’s credit card in my pocket. As our thighs fused to the black vinyl seats in the summer heat, she’d tell me about college parties with stolen nitrous tanks this guy’s dad’s a dentist, a history professor she dated his stomach is flat, not washboard, just smooth, so sexy, raking a hand through her blond hair, more Malibu than Moundsville, WV and I’d pretend to understand. We’d stop at a dive bar to get vodka cranberries in Styrofoam to-go cups with bendy straws, bartenders never questioning my age, half a foot taller than my chauffeur, before greeting the hairsprayed sales ladies with their frayed tape measurers. She’d dare me to try on red satin or black lace and we’d laugh in the fitting room, mock the sale ladies’ judgmental stares at her cutoffs with the hole in the ass revealing a peek of her Jockey’s, and she’d push me to pick at least one that wasn’t beige cotton. After, we’d visit her boyfriend, a mortician her parents didn’t like, sometimes at the funeral home while he was preparing a body for viewing, Metallica blaring from the radio, more often at his apartment where they’d pop open beers, kiss, try not to openly resent the girl preventing them from doing more, while I read the liner notes of his record collection, always made more nervous by the charge between them than the corpses, by the way he’d pick her up and spin her around so fast for too long, because I had never loved anything so hard in my short life that I needed to grab it, try to make it fly.

“It’s easy to write depressing things about Moundsville,” said Conners. “But joy and humor and life keep happening. You’re always going to teenage girls laughing about silly things, people falling in love, like normal life.”

She worries about Moundsville and its elderly population coping with the coronavirus, and about the lingering impacts of deindustrialisation. “There’ve been so many jobs and factories lost,” she said. “People’s dignity takes a hit. Even as a kid, you would sense how important having a job is to people.”

These days, living near Elmhurst hospital in New York, Connors and her husband hear sirens and helicopters. She’s been advising students to write as much as possible, even if not for imminent publication. “Writer write stuff down, writers document,” she said. “As I tell students, your perspective matters.”

In Moundsville, for a young Conners, that meant paying attention to the humans around her, even those inside the prison walls:

Resolution: New Year’s Day, Moundsville, WV 1986

Sauerkraut and black-eyed peas cooking in the kitchen
on New Year’s Day, hopes for a spell of good luck.
Nana said each pea you eat adds a dollar to your name in a year’s time.
Dad called them dirt beans, said he’d rather eat his wallet
Good for nothing anyway, but forced down a bowlful this year.
Laid off six months, little girl wearing hand-me-downs
There’s your trickle-down economics.
Mom looks out the window, sees the state pen across the street,
bites the inside of her cheek, stares hard enough to raze it to the ground.
Kids called it Castle Grayskull, gothic turrets like the He-Man lair.
Behind those walls another holiday dinner is underway.
Prisoners, more tense than usual, file into the cafeteria,
for once not thinking about what’s ground up in their food.
A guard still sweating out last night’s whiskey
doesn’t hear the footsteps of the two prisoners charging from behind.
The shiv pinching into the skin of his neck sobers him
quicker than an ice bath. They strip his gun, cuff him
to an old food service worker shaking with fear and age.
The new man in charge bellows like a circus master
at a guard locked out of the caf, demands good, hot food,
decent medicine, a pizza, and some women,
to tell Governor Moore that they are men, not dogs.
Long a cons’ prison, most of the cell locks picked,
men walked the halls freely, making up for the 5X7 cells
a judge deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Once where you wanted to end up, now too crowded,
100 men over capacity, new sadistic warden
serving three cold meals a day, closed down the Sugar Shack,
the rec room where men played cards, threw dice,
painted nightmare cartoon characters on the walls.
On day two of the riot, reclaimed, it’s the site
where one of the leaders forces a guard-turned-hostage,
to watch him cut the heart out of a suspected informant
It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.

Sirens cry through the town louder than midnight’s din
of whistles and kids drumming on pots with metal spoons.
Mom steers her children to the basement after a statey knocks
on the door, tells Dad about the riot across the street, to stay home,
just like the mill did too many weeks ago.
Resolved to keep things calm, Dad plays Candyland with the kids,
Mom calls the relatives to lie that everything’s fine
while on the television a prisoner spokesman says
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 10-below-degree weather in winter,
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 110-degree weather in the summer.
We don’t know why we can’t wear our hair long or grow a mustache or beard.
They say, ‘Act like men and we’ll treat you like men’; but it’s all talk.
All we want is to be treated like human beings, like the people that we are.

John W. Miller

 

EXCLUSIVE: Moundsville WVU Hoops Hero Chase Harler on Covid-19, Coach Huggins And Proposing to Fiancée He’d Dated Since 8th Grade — “Coach Huggins always talks about how tough West Virginia people are. It may take toughness to stay inside.”

chase

Q: First, most importantly, you earned some fame by proposing to your fiancée Lindsey Baker a few weeks ago, before the last WVU basketball game of the year, against Baylor. How long had you been planning that? And is it true you’ve been dating since 8th grade?

I had the idea my freshman year of college. It is true! We started dating on Dec 20, 2011.

Q: What are you doing to cope with the pandemic crisis?

My fiancée and I live together in Morgantown. We have a dog and two cats. They are keeping us pretty entertained, as well as binge watching TV shows. Below Deck: Mediterranean is what we are watching right now.

Q: How many colleges did you look at? Why did you choose WVU?

I was being recruited by Winthrop, James Madison, Marshall, and Elon. I grew up a huge WVU fan. I take so much pride being from Moundsville and West Virginia and I wanted to represent both the best way I could think of. So once they started recruiting me, I wanted to hold out as long as possible for them to offer me a scholarship so I could commit. Luckily, they offered be the summer going into my junior year of high school. I committed on the spot to [Legendary WVU] Coach [Bob] Huggins when he did it.

 Q: What are some of the qualities that people in West Virginia have that will help them get through the pandemic crisis?

Coach Huggins always talks about how tough West Virginia people are. I have seen it first hand from my parents, other family members, and friends. I know everyone is a bit shook about the virus – but having a tough enough mindset will help everyone get through it. It may take toughness to stay inside when you really do not want to.

Q: You played four years at WVU, and went to two Sweet Sixteens, but it all started in Moundsville. How did you start playing basketball? Who taught you?

I started playing organized basketball in 4th grade. I was fortunate enough to play on the 5th & 6th grade team at St. Francis Xavier School (the school is not there anymore, but the building is) as a 4th grader. My dad was by far the biggest influence in my life for the game of basketball. Also, my mom has never missed a sporting event of mine in middle school and high school. Her support had a huge impact on me as well.

 Q: What’s your favorite memory of youth basketball?

One of my favorite youth basketball memories was in 8th grade. For my 7th and 8th grade years, I attended Our Lady of Peace. In 8th grade, we won the championship. My dad was the assistant coach, so it was a great moment to share with him.

Q: How long has your family been in Moundsville?

My mom and dad are both from Moundsville, and have lived there most of their lives. I have never lived anywhere else – same house growing up and all. 

Q: What kind of jobs did people in your family do?

My dad is in an issuance agent in Glen Dale. My mom is a dentist in St. Clairsville, OH. My dad’s dad worked in the Chemical Plant, Allied Chemical, in Moundsville. My mother’s dad worked at Blaw Knox, in Wheeling.

 Q: You’ve seen our documentary “Moundsville”? What’s something you learned from it?

Since my elementary / middle was right by the mound, we would take yearly visits there for class. It is hard for me to remember all the facts I learned back then. It was very refreshing to hear about all the history about the mound.

 Q: What are some of your favorite places in Moundsville?

One of my favorite places in Moundsville as a kid was East End basketball courts, Maxwell Acres, and the baseball fields. This is where I spent a majority of my time growing up.

 Q: What’s the significance of the mound to you? How about the prison?

There are both very popular landmarks, and most people know about both throughout the state. It is pretty cool to think people travel from all over to visit the mound and prison.

 Q: What are your dreams for the future, personal, professional and basketball?

My next step is to play professional basketball overseas. I plan to play basketball as long as I can. When the ball stops bouncing – I plan to begin my basketball coaching career, most likely at the collegiate level.

John W. Miller

Special Offer for Residents of Moundsville/Glen Dale: Get Free Copy of ‘Moundsville’ (On PBS Soon) To Watch At Home

cropped-mound-view-1.png

This is a hard time for everybody. If you’re stuck at home, you need books to read, and movies to watch. To help out the people of the Moundsville/Glen Dale area, we’re offering a free copy of ‘Moundsville’, which will be on PBS starting in April.

To obtain your free copy, send me an email at jmjournalist@gmail.com and tell me a bit about your connection to the town and what you love (or don’t like) about it, and what gives you hope or what’s helping you get through these hard times. I’ll print the best reflections in a blog post.

John W. Miller

PS: Credit to Jodi Sandvik for this idea. She posted a nice note about how Moundsville will be okay. “We may be poor but we take care of each other in so many ways,” she wrote.

Bracing for Covid-19 in Moundsville — U.S. Rust Belt Towns Face Big Risks With Aging Populations, Hospital Bed Shortages — ‘I Know I’m Vulnerable’

Image
“I know I’m vulnerable,” said Rose Hart.

I’m worried about my friends in Moundsville. We spent a whole year working together to tell the story of their town in a documentary headed for PBS this spring, and I think of those we worked with as extended family.

Like thousands of American towns left behind by globalization, Moundsville (pop. 8,000), and surrounding Marshall County, are full of old people and don’t have the resources to cope with a global pandemic. The brain drain to the bigger cities has left these towns undermanned and underfunded in a way that is going to be badly exposed by the sweep of the Coronavirus. The light of truth is about to shine on America’s abandoned towns, rotting infrastructure and scattershot health care system.

Twenty-two percent of Marshall County’s population of around 30,000 is over 65, compared to 16% in the general population of the U.S., and 13.7% of those under 65 have a disability, compared to 8.6% in the rest of the country. Local newspapers have been pared down, meaning it’s harder for people to get accurate information and help each other.

West Virginia was the final state to record a case of Covid-19, which it finally did this week, and it’s now proceeded to shut down schools. More closures are planned, and Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency, and is asking for federal help.

As a state, West Virginia has the highest percentage – 51%, compared to a national average of 41% — of inhabitants vulnerable to infection from the disease, according to study by the Kaiser Foundation. It’s older, and has high rates of diabetes, black lung disease from coal mining, obesity, opioid addiction, and smoking.

To be sure, its towns and hollers are more disconnected than cities like New York and Washington, so the disease will spread more slowly. But over the next few months, it will extend its reach, as it has in rural communities elsewhere.

The upshot, as gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith put it to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, will be “an inequality of pain.”

The Moundsville area has a few hospitals, but in September, one of them, the Ohio Valley Medical Center, announced it was closing. The hospital, which opened in 1914 and had 200 beds, employed over 1,000 people, who were laid off.

For a while, West Virginians weren’t worried. Somebody printed a T-shirt that said: “West Virginia: COVID-19 National Champions, Self-Isolating Since 1863.” Moundsville city councilman and former mayor Phil Remke, when I emailed him a couple days ago, dismissed worries as “panic” caused by “the media, all media.” Remke is a Fox News watcher, and that had been the network’s tune, echoing President Trump’s before the real damage caused by the virus made confronting its reality inevitable. When I texted him back today, he wrote: “Live and learn, politics aside, it’s time we all work together, Democrats and Republicans, instead of criticizing each other.”

Everybody in Moundsville “is taking this very seriously,” said Susan Board, who works at St. Francis Xavier, the town’s Catholic church. “Everything’s getting canceled. The fish fry. Even the bingo.”

People are worried, said Board. “While they might not have paid too much attention when it was on the West Coast and the East Coast, now they are because there are a lot of cases in Ohio. It’s coming closer and closer.”

Stores in Moundsville have sold out of toilet paper. “We’re like the rest of the country,” said Board.

“We’re distancing and isolating ourselves, but we’re not really ready,” said Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguyen, who’s cancelled mass. “It’s mostly elderly people. That’s why it’s worse for us.”

If a person is sick, he would visit them. “I’m not worried about my own health because I’m young, I think I would make it, but 75% of our parishioners are elderly.”

Steve Hummel said he’s keeping his museum, Archives of the Afterlife, open for now but is using hand sanitizer and keeping his distance. I asked about his grandfather, Les Barker. Both are stars in the movie. Les even has my favorite line (“What do you want out of this world? You wanna set the world on fire? Or do you want enough for a weenie roast now and then.”)

“Well, he’s recovering,” said Steve. “We went fishing today, and he slipped in the mud.”

Rose Hart, a retired mail carrier featured in the film, is in the middle of moving her Appalachian Outreach charity, which helps poor people in the state, to an abandoned furniture store from an abandoned supermarket.

Hart had to cancel her April fundraiser, which was to bring in $12,000. “That’s a big hole to plug,” she told me. “I’m trying to get people to commit to quarterly donations but it’s tough.” In addition, other charities she works with around the region, including one fixing homes damaged by the 2016 flood, have had to cease activities, she said.

You can contact Rose or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.

She’s most worried about her three female employees, all of whom have children. “With the schools closing, that means they have to find child care if they want to come to work,” she said.

Rose said she’s been battling a sinus infection but doctors told her it wasn’t Covid-19 and gave her antibiotics. “I had an infection from a surgery last year,” said Rose. “I know I’m vulnerable.”

John W. Miller

STAY-AT-HOME SALE: Rent ‘Moundsville’ Documentary for $2.99, Buy for $5.99

 

img_1301

Coronavirus quarantine means we’re all prisoners.

If you haven’t seen Moundsville yet, or want to show your support for independent filmmakers during a difficult time, we’re making the film available to rent ($2.99) or buy ($5.99) at a reduced price.

Just click on this link.

We hope you enjoy the movie, the biography of a classic American town, and that things get back to normal for you soon.

John W. Miller

‘We Don’t Even Make Baseballs’ Anymore — New Political Opera ‘The Last American Hammer’ Nails Working-Class America’s Pain

0299 The Last American Hammer
Timothy Mix as Milcom Negley, and Antonia Botti-Lodovico as Dee Dee Reyes in the Pittsburgh Opera production of ‘The Last American Hammer’

What to do in America when the America you know vanishes?

That’s the question posed by Moundsville (still available here), and by The Last American Hammer, a 2018 opera that made its Pittsburgh debut Saturday night.

I checked out the show and chatted afterwards with librettist Matt Boresi about its origins. Boresi, who describes himself as “one of the only full-time opera librettists,” is the descendant of Italian immigrants from Coal City, Illinois (pop. 5,400), near Chicago, a Midwestern town that, like Moundsville, has fallen on hard times.

Boresi said he had the idea for an opera before the 2016 election, and teamed up with composer Peter Hilliard to write The Last American Hammer. “We could already see the civil disruption, things falling apart,” he told me. During the Trump presidency, it seems even more topical, he conceded: “People ask me if I wrote it this morning.” It’s smart, provocative political satire, an opera easily digestible at 90 minutes, and I recommend seeing it at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, where it will play February 25 and 28, and March 1.

Boresi set the opera in a small town near Akron, Ohio, and made his hero an angry would-be right-wing militant vigilante named Milcom Negley. The sense of place is strong, especially in the language, for example when Negley croons, in perfect Ohioese: “This is some bullshit.” There are jokes about sauerkraut balls, a local delicacy.  The characters describe a downtown hollowed out “by big boxes”, and a geography of taverns and dollar stores. “There are no more dances at the VFW.”

Negley used to work at a hammer factory. (Last year, I profiled one of the actual last hammer factories in the U.S., in Wheeling, WV, for Postindustrial Magazine.) Negley’s plant is closed now. He’s holed himself up in a museum full of old ceramic jugs shaped like people, conversing with the owner Tink Enraught, herself a left-wing domestic terrorist in the 1970s. She built the museum with money her dad got from selling the hammer factory. Negley’s behavior is alarming, and Enraught has called the FBI. Agent Dee Dee Reyes arrives, and the three archetypical characters carry on a poetic, poignant, and often very funny conversation about the state of America, which includes quips about TED Talks, and Google and Youtube. The libretto would work as a play.

At the heart of Negley’s frustration is the decline of the factory job. “We don’t make a goddamned thing in this country anymore.” Not even baseballs. “Little red wagons get put together by tiny yellows hands in big red countries.” The root cause of Negley’s pain is economic: Losing his job has unmoored him.

“You’re wounded because you’re falling through the cracks of society,” agent Reyes tells Negley, who hits back with pained pantings. “The American dream is the most powerful myth in history,” he sings. “The idea that anybody can do anything. How appealing. You’d trade an awful lot to keep a dream like that alive.”

In a clever twist, Negley the militiaman complains about foreign interference — at a time when most right-wing libertarian types find themselves cheering Russia’s support of President Trump. More specifically, Negley’s conspiratorial beef is that the country abandoned an earlier version of the 13th amendment, which would have banned “any American citizen from receiving any foreign title of nobility or receiving foreign favors, such as a pension, without congressional approval” on pain of losing citizenship. There really are 13th amendment truthers, Boresi explained.

As an America based on a post-World War Two prosperous middle class and solid democratic habits transitions into something else, we’re facing no small amount of chaos and pain.

So what is next for the Negleys of this country?

In Moundsville, and as James and Deborah Fallows describe in their book Our Towns, the landscape vacated by one kind of society has opened opportunities to build another. There is hope. And life after the factory; it’ll just be a lot different.

But in Negley’s world, as he puts it: “When you’re holding the last American hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

John W. Miller

‘American Factory’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary – The Rust Belt Doc’s Essential Lessons About America, China, Unions, and Global Capitalism – Why We Need To Keep Telling These Stories

MV5BNWFkMDY1MjItZmNkOS00MDg2LWFlMjMtZWU3YmM0MmY3MWM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_

‘America Factory’, the 2019 documentary about a glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, won the best feature documentary award at last night’s Oscars.

The film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground company and available on Netflix, is a masterpiece in observational journalism. It’s the second year in a row that a documentary about the Midwest got nominated for an Oscar, after‘Mind the Gap’ in 2019, a stunning skateboarding memoir by Bing Liu.

The success of both movies, like the acquisition of ‘Moundsville’ by PBS distributor NETA, and James and Deb Fallows’ “Our Towns” book and coming HBO film, shows the appetite for reported storytelling — not related to presidential campaigns and elections — about former industrial America as it transitions away from lucrative manufacturing toward an undetermined future — both promising and scary — that is not as industrially wealthy, has lots of opportunities for life and rebirth, and is challenged by automation, aging population, brain drain and opioid addiction.

I had seen it before but I watched ‘American Factory’ again on Monday during my lunch break. You should, too.

The backstory is the winds of global trade and capitalism. For over a decade, Chinese investors have been shopping in Europe and the U.S. for companies to acquire so they could manufacture closer to the markets where they were selling.  Since Beijing embraced state-sponsored capitalism after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, it’s invited integration with the industrial West. When I reported for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels, I accompanied a Chinese CEO on what was basically a shopping trip. Over a meal, he casually mentioned he would be happy to spend tens of billions of dollars on buying a “top-three European food company.”

The particular incarnation recounted in ‘American Factory’ is the fate of a glass-making plant in Dayton, Ohio. It used to belong to GM. Now it’s been acquired by China’s Fuyao.

What makes the film so great, I think, is the access Bognar and Reichert negotiated with Fuyao, with the help of Chinese filmmakers. In the manner of prize-winning journalism, it channels a lucid, conscience-raising vision of what’s actually happening.

GM can’t make money off the factory. Chinese investors think they can. The workplace cultures, forged by history and business practice, are radically different. The Chinese firm pays its employees under $15 an hour, half the GM rate, and expect total unrelenting devotion. They dismiss concepts like work-life balance and fight unions.

Below the forces driving investment and acquisition of capital are people doing their best to survive. Just like in ‘Moundsville’, the characters in ‘American Factory’ are surfing forces beyond their control.

In China, companies and workers were formed by authoritarian socialist rule, followed by a giant leap into capitalism, managed by the state. Western companies were happy to come calling, helping Beijing negotiate trade deals and join the WTO, and jacking up profits by moving their production to China.

In America, business culture was formed by a post-World War Two boom that invited unionization and lifted generations out of the Depression into the middle class, followed by a sharper focus on profits and returning value to shareholders.

As in any colonial enterprise, cultures clash. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” an American manager tells workers, as he offers three shifts, with a “30-minute unpaid lunch” and two paid 15-minute breaks.

The Chinese manager lecturing his Chinese charges who’ve moved to Ohio to work educates them.  “America is a place to let your personality run free,” he says. “You’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” Other lessons: “They are very obvious.” “They don’t hide anything.” “Everything is practical and realistic.” “They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.”

There is sweetness in these efforts to understand, and the best attempts at connecting, like when an American worker invites Chinese migrants to his house to check out his handguns and eat turkey with all the trimmings.

In Ohio, they’re enduring the reality that their slice of the planet has become a little bit poorer, and that the 1950s are not coming back. What’s next for Dayton and other similar places in the Midwest? Universal Basic Income? Tourism? Tech? Stronger unions? I don’t know but everything needs to be on the table and the truth must light the way; we need to keep sharing stories like ‘American Factory.’

John W. Miller

Moundsville 2020: “We’re Doing Great, Thanks to Trump” — Former Mayor Remke Loves the President, Fox News, and Supports “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson” in 2024

As “Moundsville” heads to PBS stations around the country, we’re starting a new series of features on this blog around the election. We don’t talk about politics in the film, but it is an election year, and Moundsville is a good place to check in on Trump country, with, hopefully, as much accuracy and nuance as possible. We’ll talk to characters in the film and others, on all sides of the debate. First up is Phil Remke, who opens and closes the film. Remke is no longer mayor, but he’s still on city council and he was keen to show off new construction. We met at Bob’s Diner, and then he drove me around town. 

IMG_0592
Phil Remke

Underlying the Senate’s certain acquittal of President Trump is a floor of support from Republican voters around the country that seems impossible to erode.

Phil Remke is one of them. He’s not changing his mind. “The president is a businessman and he’s doing a great job,” he told me when we sat down for coffee. “This impeachment thing is ridiculous. I haven’t seen any facts.”

Phil gets most of his national news from Fox. He also watches NBC, CBS and ABC, but not CNN, which “needs to look deeper into the issues as I believe Fox does.” Until Fox changes its approach or other media companies figure out ways of reaching people like Remke, Trump will reign in Moundsville. (In 2016, 73% of voters in the county voted for the president, compared to 23% for Hillary Clinton.)

Remke’s perception of good times rolls on two things: the stock market, and shiny new local construction. Moundsville has a new Holiday Inn with 123 rooms, its second chain hotel. The market for beds is strong, thanks to the gas industry and a possible plastic-making plant that might get build across the river in Ohio. The other is the Sleep Inn, with 75 rooms. If the plastics plant gets built across the river in Ohio, a new Marriott will get built, too, said Remke. There’s a new bank under construction. And a spectacular new high school football stadium that cost over $5 million. 

“We’re doing well, thanks to Trump,” said Remke. “He’s doing everything he said he would do, and everybody’s doing better in the stock market, everybody’s saying that.”

No president should be above the law, said Remke, “but I don’t think Trump has broken any laws, at least not that I’ve seen from watching the news.” The former mayor believes in democracy. “I believe everyone has the right to their own opinion without fighting,” he said. “That’s the way it should be in the greatest county in the world.”

You can’t overstate the role Fox News plays in the cultural and political lives of people in Moundsville. With newspapers shrinking in their availability and influence, it’s Fox, almost alone, that feeds people the national narratives they carry to their dinner tables, commutes, golf courses, voting booths, and reporters who show up at Bob’s Diner asking questions. The loop doesn’t crack.

On a big screen in the McDonald’s where sources often ask to meet me for coffee, the station plays all day. “You go into people’s homes and they’re always watching Fox,” Father That Son Nguyen told me when I stopped by the town’s Catholic Church, where Remke worships. (He also attends a nondenominational church on Sunday mornings, which “works hard to bring God into the picture for the younger people”. In a follow-up text message, Remke wrote that he is “a Catholic and always will be” although he doesn’t “believe everything that is done in the Catholic faith is correct.” Without God, he wrote, “we are nothing.”) Fox “validates what people believe, especially religious beliefs,” said Susan Board, who works at the church.

Here’s how powerful Fox is: Remke speaks of its anchors as if they were national leaders. When I asked him who he would support in the 2024 election, Remke said he would like “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson”. Of the other Republican politicians, Remke said “they just don’t have the guts, the toughness we need right now.”

Remke’s boosterism lies on top of some harsh realities Moundsville still faces. The population is still aging. Opioids are killing people. Facing low prices, gas companies have been laying off workers. The hotels are owned by out-of-town chain operators and will create mostly low-paying jobs for people in Moundsville. The town’s unemployment rate is 6%, higher than the national average. There are 30 gambling joints in Moundsville, with slot machines and other games. Remke is trying to shut them down: “People don’t have the money to spend on that stuff, and we need to help people.”

And then there’s the demographic challenge. “We need more young people down here,” said Board. “It’s still a great community for people to live.”

John W. Miller

‘Moundsville’ Acquired by PBS Distributor Ahead of 2020 Election — Will Screen On Up to 338 PBS Stations Serving 100 Million Viewers

28827824_10156211408171664_887502694187991348_o

Moundsville was a dream that Dave Bernabo and I had to tell an inclusive story about America after the 2016 election. We got a small grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council and spent 2018 traveling to Moundsville, shooting and editing. From start to finish, it was a two-man job. The film got great reviews, and we spent much of 2019 promoting and screening the movie everywhere from Moundsville itself and WVU in Morgantown to America Magazine in New York and United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and talking and writing about it. This blog, with stories on George Brett, Lady Gaga and Brad Paisley (all with roots near Moundsville), economic development, Appalachian books, characters in the movie, and much else, attracted a following of over 50,000 unique visitors and 65,000 views.

We weren’t sure what would happen next. Last month, we got a call from Angee Simmons, the new director of content at NETA, an organization that supplies 338 PBS stations around the country. Moundsville, she said, was in a stack submitted almost a year ago. It had fallen through the cracks. But she had watched it and loved it, and now she wanted to screen it on PBS.

Finally, we had a next. It’s not clear how many stations will pick it up, and how many people will watch it over the next three years. It could be hundreds of stations and millions of people. Or zero. But I’m beyond thrilled and proud that our little project is finally entering the big ring, and will have a shelf life in the culture of this country ahead of the 2020 election. Simply, I hope it helps people understand and listen to each other better.

Below, I’m pasting the full press release that’s going out to media this week.

John W. Miller

PRESS RELEASE

MOUNDSVILLE ACQUIRED BY PBS DISTRIBUTOR NETA

–        SCREEN ON UP TO 338 PBS STATIONS OVER NEXT THREE YEARS

–        PLAY FOR AS MANY AS 100 MILLION VIEWERS

–        AVAILABLE ON PBS YOUTUBE CHANEL

–        AHEAD OF 2020 ELECTION, MOUNDSVILLE STIMULATES BETTER CONVERSATIONS AROUND ECONOMICS & POLITICS

–        “FRESH AND VALUABLE” – JAMES FALLOWS, THE ATLANTIC

PITTSBURGH, PA– The National Educational Telecommunications Association and filmmakers David Bernabo and John W. Miller have reached an agreement to distribute the feature documentary film Moundsville to 338 PBS stations around the country over the next three years. The film will be cut to 57 minutes from 74 minutes and close-captioned to suit PBS standards.

Moundsville is the biography of a classic American town, Moundsville, WV, told through the voices of residents. It’s a Trump-supporting town, but there is no mention of Trump or any other national political leader in the film. The story told is a bigger one, from the native American mound the town is named after, to the arrival of the world’s biggest toy factory, to an economy based on Wal-Mart and fracking and a new generation figuring it all out. The goal of the film is affirm the community-building and healing value of shared narrative.

After premiering in Moundsville in December, 2018, the film in 2019 was distributed online, on Vimeo, and screened publicly in New York City, Pittsburgh, and various locations in West Virginia.

Moundsville is an excellent addition to our catalog,” says NETA vice president for content Angee Simmons. “NETA’s program service celebrates local voices and stories from all corners of our country.”

Moundsville “just happens to be home to my favorite childhood toy, The Big Wheel, and unbeknownst to me the largest indigenous burial mound in the country,” says Simmons. “But more importantly is told with a lot of heart from the people who call it home.  After watching, I knew I wanted to share it with public television audiences.”

“We’re thrilled to find a wider audience for Moundsville,” says co-director John W. Miller. “We want to share the story of a place in a way that affirms the dignity and purpose of all communities in this country, free of the poison of national politics and propaganda.”

Miller and Bernabo filmed Moundsville in 2018 with a grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council

For more information or receive a digital copy of the film, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391 or jmjournalist@gmail.com

John W. Miller

John W. Miller is an award-winning journalist with over 20 years experiences in print, radio, TV and film. As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Miller reported from 45 countries and covered global mining and global trade, elections, trade negotiations, the World Cup and Tour de France. Miller has also reported and written for Time, America, Heated, NPR, Buzzfeed, the Baltimore Sun, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and serves as chief economic analyst of Trade Data Monitor. Moundsville is his first movie.

David Bernabo

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull, Watererer, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger. Bernabo’s films have screened at the On Art Film Festival, JFilm Festival, Re:NEW Festival, Afronaut(a) Film Club, the Foodable Film Festival, and on WQED’s Filmmakers Corner.

The National Educational Telecommunications Association

The NETA Program Service distributes quality documentaries and specials to 338 public television stations across the country. With our member stations and independent producers as our partners, we celebrate diverse voices and unique perspectives representing every state in the country and share those stories with a national audience.