The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

August 7, 2011

Hawks Nest Tunnel

“It’s a film, but at the same time, it’s more than a film,” says “The Hawks Nest Tunnel” director and producer David Pushkin.

“It’s also a bunch of people trying to get together and make the history of what happened transparent.”

“It’s a history that the people of West Virginia really want to be aware of and really want to help uncover,” adds the film’s cinematographer, Jordan Freeman.

The two have spent the past few days scouting locations for filming. They are physically exhausted, but their strain has also been emotional, they say. One of the filming locations, after all, is a mass grave of tunnel workers in Nicholas County, lost and forgotten until recently.

After 80 years of rumors, hearsay, and brittle facts, Pushkin, his crew, and local community members are attempting to bring all the known information on the tunnel together, finally, in one place — an hour-long television documentary. In doing so, they hope to bring some kind of resolution to the story, or at least allow the film’s audience to come to their own conclusions about the incident.

As they continue to secure funding for the film, they are placing a special emphasis on finding money within the state, believing that there’s power in West Virginia natives claiming a stake in the film.

They are also searching for locals with a personal connection to the Hawks Nest story who may want to lend their knowledge to the project, particularly descendants of tunnel workers.

“It’s a story that not many people in West Virginia know about and one that is a truly fascinating window into industrial exploitation in the state,” says Freeman, a documentary filmmaker living in West Virginia whose past projects reflect his care for the place he calls home.

“Because of that history, it’s a story that needs to be told by people from West Virginia, in order to get the lessons right and get at the truth.”

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“What David is doing is not just a bland info documentary,” says Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association, one of the funders of the film. “He’s got a bold vision of how to treat what is in fact a tragic but important story.

“What really fired up the Labor History Association about David’s treatment is that he’s fundamentally an artist and a poet. How do you talk about a subject like Hawks Nest in a way that doesn’t trivialize or treat it inadequately? Maybe poetry is the only way to do it.”

“The landscape at Hawks Nest is not an average landscape,” says Pushkin, an artist and former art professor from Charleston who now lives in New York City. “There is a sense of the sublime there — cliffs, overlooks, rapids, water. The natural elements themselves are potent with feeling.

“When you look at what happened there historically from the perspective of labor history, that also has a certain sense of the sublime — that hundreds were killed, that their deaths were covered up for 80 years.

“When you combine those two sublime elements, you have a chance to create a third meaning, which is a poetic meaning that one comes to as an audience member and brings one’s own story.

“When we say ‘poetic,’ we mean that all the elements — images, music, content — work together in an orchestrated sense to create an emotional response to the story.”

He speaks of the “ascentive,” or upwardly rising, aspect to the Hawks Nest story. “It is similar to the concept of one’s spirit rising after death, or the resurrection of nature in springtime. The story has been buried through 80 years of winter, and now we’re reaching a point of resurrection.”

He and Freeman hope to have the filming completed in one year and plan to use seasonal change as an organizational framework for the film.

Elements combining to tell the workers’ story will include landscape footage, news reels, archival footage of the development of industry in West Virginia, 20s- and 30s-era jazz, and indigenous music, such as gospel music from Gauley Bridge.

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“From time to time, people come by who are interested in the tunnel and what happened down there,” says Norman Jordan, director of the African American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted, who has assisted Pushkin in his project. “David was just following in a line of people to come through and ask about it.

“It’s one of those things where people come through all excited about the story, but then they sort of drift away,” he says.

Pushkin and his team say part of their dedication is rooted in the belief that the Hawks Nest story has important lessons for West Virginians, and Americans, today.

“It’s a rare opportunity to tell some very timely lessons about the way that humans can be treated in situations where they don’t have very much agency,” says Freeman.

“It’s timely because we’re going through a period where there are major pushes toward deregulation and toward scaling back or eliminating agencies and controls that were enacted after this incident and others like it,” he continues. “It’s important to remember why those things were created in the first place.”

Freeman refers to laws like the Walsh-Healey Act, New Deal legislation passed in 1936 after federal hearings on the Hawks Nest Tunnel deaths, which established overtime, minimum wage, child labor and safety standards for workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was an outgrowth of the act.

“It’s also timely because when you look at things globally, the same sort of shortcuts that were taken at Hawks Nest are in danger of being repeated,” he says. “There are places in the world today where workers and people are dying and not given respect, care or even remembrance.”

“All of West Virginia’s stories, and all meaningful stories, really, are tragic stories,” says Pushkin. “The lesson within those stories isn’t a sad lesson. It’s a lesson of great spiritual value to people who need to learn how to treat each other and go on to future generations.

“As humans, our culture won’t be remembered for achievements like road building and industrial capacity. Our culture will be remembered by the way we treat each other.”

Freeman adds, “Through helping give voice to the experiences of these men in a way that shows why the tragedy was allowed to happen, we hope to make sure that lessons are learned from them. For many of them, there is nothing that remains today to remember them by.”

“The cover-up of their murder has led to the kind of injustice that needs to be re-examined,” Pushkin says.

For more information on donating to the project or sharing information about the Hawks Nest Tunnel with producers, visit www.hawksnestmovie.org and click the “Support Us” link, or write to info@hawksnestmovie.org.

—Email: cmoore@register-herald.com

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