Crossing borders, deepening exchange

After Coal producer Patricia Beaver and director Tom Hansell traveled to Wales early this month to screen a work in progress of the documentary. The pair returned to the communities where they recorded scenes for the upcoming film to get feedback. Tom Hansell writes about his experience:


The M4 expressway uses the Severn Bridge to cross the border between England and Wales.
The Severn Bridge crosses the border between England and Wales.

Crossing the Severn Bridge, I began to get nervous. Some of this nervousness had to do with driving in the left hand side of the road, which felt dangerous to my American brain. But the major source of my anxiety was our plan to screen a draft of our documentary to the people who appear in it and asking for their honest feedback.

Many documentary makers believe in keeping their work under wraps until it is finely polished. However, I was taught by the filmmakers at the Appalshop media arts center that the communities you work in are your most important audience.  While this participatory process can be time consuming and occasionally difficult, I still find it a necessary part of grounding my documentary projects, especially when I am working in a culture that I am not a part of, such as the former coalfields of South Wales.

Pat and I listened to many diverse perspectives in our series of screenings across the South Wales valleys. One of the most interesting groups we screened to was a mix of students, poets, and community sponsored by Merthyr Tydfil College.

director Tom Hansell enters the Red House

The screening took place in the newly renovated Red House – the old town hall and the site of the first democratic government in a town that had been dominated by the 19th century coal and steel barons who built Merthyr Tydfil. The mix of young and old in our focus group yielded interesting conversation. Many of the older folks had participated in the historic 1984 miners strike, while most of the students were born the following decade and knew little of the events.

The Red House in Merthyr Tydfill


In some ways, this generational shift is part of the shift from an industrial economy that built towns like Merthyr Tydfill. However, a shifting economic base is not easy to navigate, and many young people in Wales still struggle to find job opportunities. Some of the students we talked to were planning to move from their hometown to the coastal cities of Cardiff or Swansea in search of better opportunity. Richard Davies, the director of the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College, is one exception. After living away from Wales, he found his way back home and now works to create opportunities for young people to create artistic projects that perpetuate life and culture of Merthyr.

This place based approach to community building parallels to the work we do at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, as well as at our partner organizations such as the Appalshop media arts center in Whitesburg, KY.  As we shared ideas of how to reinvent coal communities with our focus groups in Wales, my nervousness dissipated and many wonderful conversations started. My hope is that these conversations will strengthen the connections between two deeply rich cultures.

– Tom Hansell, June 2014