Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice (2006, SD 72min)


"A riveting and ultimately energizing documentary... In a scant hour-plus, "Black Diamonds" provides a thumbnail economic and political history of coal mining in the state, a textured portrait of Appalachian life and a convincing case for ending the environmental scourge of decapitating mountains to get to the coal buried inside them." Ann Hornaday, Washington Post


Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice is a feature-length narrative documentary addressing large-scale coal surface mining techniques in Appalachian states and local community resistance to these destructive operations. In many cases, citizens are fighting not just to maintain their heritage and sense of culture, but also for their very lives as they witness heightened water contamination, deaths from flooding, and other mining calamities. Having been born and raised in West Virginia, the artist undertook the project with a sense of "creative triage" in hopes of not only alerting a wider audience to these critical problems, but also to document the communities and cultural values formative to her as a child that are being lost to large scale strip mining.


The project encompasses five years of on location research, interviews, and documentation in a range of communities directly affected by this practice. The approach focused on linking vernacular experience, emotions, complaints, reportage, and in vitro events from a range of diverse citizens with scientific, sociological, and regulatory data frequently dismissed or belittled by the civic institutions tasked with protecting Appalachian communities.


As the research unfolded, the key characters providing the most intense resistance to mountaintop removal on a local level were a network of courageous, intelligent women who stepped from roles as wives, mothers, and sole providers to take on the predominantly male corporate culture of coal mining. These women were singularly brave people who frequently became lightning rods in their own communities. They endured social conflict, public humiliation, and threats of physical violence to tell the truth. Frequently the same communities that shunned them called on them later when they began to suffer the effects of surface mining. Judy Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, Patty Seebock, Lorelei Scarborough and many more incredible women will inspire the world with their courage for years to come.


Black Diamonds could be described as an adept attempt at advocacy journalism using contemporary social realism as a vehicle. However, at its strongest, the film lays bare a pressing crisis wherein scientifically gathered data, and clearly documented evidence of environmental damages are categorized as partisan emotional & political commentary by the coal industry. The tools of material proof and regulation are repeatedly discarded in favor of the interests of powerful industries. In many ways the film is an artifact of this Sisiphyusian reality lived by so many poor communities. The more citizens work to collect and prove "true damages" via empirical data and reportage in order to halt exploitation, the harder powerful industries work to recategorize the material evidence as hysteria, a distortion, or a simple public relations issue. In this way, the practical means (science, engineering, unadulterated documentation) by which we examine "reality" begin to crumble under intensive propaganda campaigns beyond our imagination.


After the film was released the artist toured with Appalachia activists - Julia "Judy" Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, Patty Seebok and Lorelei Scarborough - almost weekly from 2006 to 2008 in churches, community halls, schools, universities, and museums completing over one hundred in-person screenings with advocacy & educational sessions. Black Diamonds continues to screen in venues large & small across the US.




2008 - Selection Documentary Fortnight - Museum of Modern Art (

2008 - Finalist, North American Assn. for Environmental Education/ Albert I. Pierce Foundation Film & Video Festival

2007 - Jack Spadaro Documentary Award (Best Appalachian Media selected by the Appalachian Studies Association)

2007 - Silver Chris - Best in Division Columbus International Film Festival

2007 - Best Documentary Southern Appalachian International Film Festival

2006 - Editor's Choice, Video Librarian

2006 - Key to the City of South Charleston

2005 - Paul Robeson Independent Media Award

2002 - Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist Award


Official Film Website:


Distributor Page:


A searing...documentary...mixes history, sociology, advocacy journalism, and personal portraits vividly depicting the catastrophic ecological and cultural effects wrought by mountaintop removal." Michael Yockel, Baltimore Magazine


"I tend to be a hard sell on social-conscience-driven documentaries, even while I recognize the often noble intentions behind them. Perhaps it's because I see too many of them over the course of the year. By the time I finish watching the collected films for the Amnesty International Film Festival, the sensory overload sometimes makes me feel like going out and oppressing a Third World country. So when I say that Catherine Pancake's documentary depicting both the ecological and cultural impact of mountaintop-removal coal mining is a piece of powerful, almost incendiary filmmaking, you know I feel I have seen something remarkably good and effective." Ken Hanke, MountainXpress, Asheville & Western NC


Black Diamonds has been acquired and is available in numerous university and public libraries throughout the US thanks to our distributor BullFrog Films.


Broadcast US: Excerpts: Bill Moyers (PBS,) National Park Association, Big Ideas for a Small Planet (Sundance Channel,) Newseum (CSPAN.) Feature: Free Speech Television Great Britain: Community Channel/UK