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Alum’s Award-Winning Doc ‘King Coal’ Kicking Off Next ‘POV’ Season

Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s award-winning hybrid documentary that follows a coal miner’s daughter through Appalachia is kicking off the 37th season of PBS’ long running POV nonfiction series on June 24.

“The regions that are coal mined are some of the poorest in the country. The culture and iconography of coal still exists today and many politicians tap into it,” said Sheldon, MFA ’13. “Coal miners are just trying to make a living and are often made into political pawns. It’s reimagining a different future.”

A West Virginia native, Sheldon used a grant she received as a Guggenheim Fellow, to fund the movie that looks at how the coal industry is entrenched in people’s sense of identity in Appalachia. In the film, she documents cultural events, such as the Annual Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal Show.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon on a boat
Elaine McMillion Sheldon MFA ’13

The film has won prizes from numerous festivals including the Seattle International Film Festival and Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, and has won cinematography awards at Woods Hole and more. The movie also won Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography from the American Society of Cinematographers.

“There’s magical realism and fiction in this piece that my other pieces don’t [have],” said Sheldon. “I wanted support to go out on a limb and try something new in my artistic process.”

Tackling the coal industry is not new to Sheldon. She previously collaborated with Frontline and NPR for Coal’s Deadly Dust, which investigated the rise of black lung disease among coal miners, and the failure of the government to protect miners. It was nominated for a 2020 Writers Guild of America Award.

Sheldon’s previous works include two Netflix documentaries, Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys, which look at America’s opioid crisis. The former was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award and won the 2018 Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Documentary. Her film Tutwiler shows what it’s like to be incarcerated and pregnant at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.

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