​‘Mine 21’ Documentary Receives National Award

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The Sewanee-produced documentary “Mine 21” was named a winner of the 2019 Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media.

“I was surprised and not surprised,” said producer Chris McDonough. “It’s a surprise to win any award. However, “Mine 21” receiving the award makes sense. The story deals with profound questions of trauma for individuals and the community.”

In the short documentary, the 1981 Whitwell mining explosion where 13 coal miners lost their lives is unveiled through the eyes of recent Sewanee graduate Kelsey Arbuckle, C’19, and Alexa Shea Fults, C’21, whose pasts are intimately linked to the mines. Videographer and Sewanee alum Stephen Garrett directed the film.

It was not until she was a college sophomore that Arbuckle learned her grandfather died in the Mine 21 explosion. She sought out classics professor McDonough, who had blogged about the disaster. Their discussion jumpstarted McDonough’s interest in making a documentary about “Mine 21.” Arbuckle brought in her classmate Fults, who also had family ties to the local mining industry.

The film was released last October. In March, McDonough, Arbuckle and Fults accepted an invitation to tell the “Mine 21” story to mental health professionals at Yale University and Western New England University. Among the psychiatrists, therapists and counselors attending was the director of the Austen Riggs Center, a therapeutic community, open psychiatric hospital, and institute for education and research.

The Austen Riggs award selection committee included both field psychiatrists and media experts, McDonough said. “Their interest is in media that portrays mental health not in an academic way, but a journalistic or more artistic fashion.” Past award recipients include the Boston Globe Spotlight Team (2017) and NPR’s Hidden Brain (2018).

“I want to deflect attention to Stephen Garrett who worked extremely hard, to Kelsey and Alexa, and to the events themselves,” McDonough said. “Everyone should know this story.”

Pursuant to expanding the 15-minute film to fit the standard broadcast length format, the Mine 21 team has interviewed labor historians, community trauma researchers, and mine safety experts. “A 25-minute version is done except for final edits,” McDonough said. “We need to power through the unfun stuff such as color correction and sound design.”

He is undecided about whether to go to PBS with the final version or to release the film at festivals. Watching a film in a group experience is different, McDonough said.

“The new cut asks harder questions about government regulations, how we heal from community trauma, and how we hold the government responsible if they don’t do their job. An individual asking those questions feels overwhelmed by them, but in a group people wonder, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ This is a story that should make people feel energized, not stuck. There are things to do in commemoration of those lives. We remember in order to become better.”

In the film, Arbuckle interviews her grandmother Barbara Myers whose husband was killed in the explosion. The segment illustrates McDonough’s point.

“When the tragedy happened, Barbara Myers went to the highest level of government to get things addressed. Her actions were heroic and deeply American. She wasn’t looking for new laws, just to get the old ones enforced.”

McDonough, Garrett, along with Arbuckle and Fults and their families will attend the Nov. 1 awards ceremony in Stockbridge, Mass. Fults, now a junior, is majoring in politics. Arbuckle is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at American University in Washington, D.C.