I came to know about the documentary Bonecrusher quite randomly, through a Medical Sociology listserve, in which people were discussing health and Appalachia. It is quite random indeed when my work interests intersect with the interests I write about here. Nonetheless, Bonecrusher is a picture of an America the world may forget still exists, one in which overarching poverty frames the lives of communities over the course of many generations.
The film has made its way around the country in various film festivals, gaining attention in the "people who go to film festivals" circle, and apparently the "people who study health in Appalachia" circle, but otherwise it has largely flown under the radar. The film is available on DVD, which is great for those interested, since catching a film you want to see at a local film festival typically requires a good bit of random luck. Director Michael Fountain has worked extensively in television for many years, and his experience shows in the care and detail in which the story is told.
The film centers around Luther Chaffin, a lifelong resident of Russell County, VA, who gained the nickname "Bonecrusher" during his years as a coal miner. As the film finds him, he is now quite literally a frame of his former self as a result of the long term chronic health complications associated with his profession. However, this is not a story solely about the high risk occupation of coal mining, but rather one about the culture, communities, and families that have defined coal mining for generations. Most important to this story is Luther's bond with his son Lucas, a young man who has only recently taken up coal mining as his profession, thus carrying on the family tradition.
In the past, I have discussed films about the American South such as Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus and Seven Signs, which cover the obscure and "off the beaten path" South that is very interesting, but which are often more a presentation of novelties than typical everyday life. Bonecrusher does well not to overly romanticize or sensationalize the coal mining lifestyle, presenting on a number of levels the hardships and adversities built into the lives of the impoverished families and communities, and further depicting the strained relationships and continual cycle of health complications that go along with their high risk occupation.
Coal mining typically comes into our perception every few years when a major disaster occurs in a mine, and our 24-hour news coverage spends a few days in these small communities, depicting the anguish of tight knit communities losing loved ones. At those times, they flood us with information about mine safety and what has changed and what hasn't changed in the long history of coal mining, and then, as quickly as they took up the coverage, they are gone, leaving families and communities to continue on with their way of life as they always have, and making us all forget about mining until the next media blitz. Bonecrusher tells us about the everyday life that occurs in between those events, where chronic disease kills far more people than major mining disasters likely ever will.
Similarly, the film tells stories about masculinity and the effects of globalization. With the former, we hear middle aged men discussing how much they love working in the mine, how they always wanted to work in the mine more than anything else, and how a man gains a certain respect in being a miner that he can not obtain anywhere else. With the latter, we also learn that the mining companies have found it difficult to find new young men to work, because younger generations have taken alternate paths and moved out of the mining communities to take jobs in urban areas, possibly as a means of avoiding the paths they saw generations before them take. Thus, the mining communities resemble many other rural areas in the U.S., where the prospect of jobs and opportunities has pulled entire generations away to urban areas, thus leaving a small aging population to maintain the disappearing culture.
In the end, one may come away from the film wondering what to take from it. As you might expect, no happy ending or comforting resolution concludes the film. Rather, the end is more a depiction about how life goes on and the work goes on, no matter what happened the day before. It is a film about all the love and bonds and stubborness that often comprise a father-son relationship, and I think it does quite well to depict the positives that have sustained the coal mining life for as long as it has been the lifeblood of small mining towns in Appalachia, most notably the strong sense of family and community that defines the lives of these individuals. While the documentary is unlikely to be a mainstream success, it will remain a staple in certain circles because it tells an important story that urban America increasingly doesn't remember or understand, in spite of the fact that it is the work of people like this that makes the lights in your house turn on when you flip the switch. It is a small picture of the occupation that has long defined the Appalachian region, and one that we should not forget exists.