Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are deploying an increasingly common weapon in advocacy campaigns: a documentary film.
Their 19-minute production, “Robeson Rises,” features Lumbee Indians and an African-American who live near the route of the planned 600-mile natural gas pipeline that is set to run through eight North Carolina counties. At times resolute and tearful, the residents are shown organizing against the interstate energy project that they say threatens their ancestral land and their cultural identity.
The film’s organizers say their project is unusual even by the standards of the political documentary, which takes sides by design. They agreed to cede artistic independence to empower the subjects of the film to make editorial decisions to tell their own story in their own way.
“The community brings its own intentionality as to who owns the narrative,” said Andy Myers, campaign coordinator of Working Films, a Wilmington organization that coordinated the project. “It hasn’t been without some challenges because we were balancing the artists’ autonomy as a filmmaker with the needs of the community.”
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The political documentary is an established genre popularized by award-winning filmmaker and liberal activist Michael Moore, as well as by independent productions like “Gasland,” the anti-fracking film from 2010 that was nominated for an Academy Award. Following the classic David-and-Goliath story line, “Robeson Rises” depicts locals facing off against a politically powerful behemoth, in this case Charlotte’s Duke Energy and Richmond’s Dominion Resources.
The organizers of “Robeson Rises” plan to screen the film in Robeson County on March 22 at Carolina Civic Center Historic Theater. After the showing they plan to post their film online for public dissemination. They want the documentary to warn of potential environmental risks from spills, accidents and global warming. And they want to fuel continued opposition to the $6 billion project being built to bring natural gas here from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
One of those featured in “Robeson Rises” is N.C. State University hydrology professor Ryan Emanuel, who said in a phone interview that the documentary allows residents to create a record of opposition to counter the scripted messaging of powerful corporations.
“As a Lumbee person, I’m affected by this pipeline because it impacts the cultural landscapes that help define my identity as an indigenous person,” Emanuel said. “We want to tell our own story even if it’s not included in an official environmental impact statement.”
Founded in 1999, Working Films has collaborated on 852 advocacy films and documentaries, including “Robeson Rises.” The films have advocated against coal ash, fracking, offshore drilling and gerrymandering, and advocated for gay marriage, immigrant rights and “Moral Monday” protests.
The film, which was produced by Bradley Bethel, was overseen by Appalachian Voices, an environmental group in Boone, and cost $25,000 to produce through grants from Working Films, The Fledgeling Fund and from individual anonymous benefactors, said Bethel, a producer at Green Hero Films in Durham.
“Robeson Rises” doesn’t tell the whole story of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It doesn’t mention the Robeson County residents, some of them Lumbees, who are in favor of the project and believe it will bring economic benefits. Public expressions of support also came in from the Robeson County commissioners, City Council of Lumberton and K.M. Biggs, a commercial real estate management company.
It also waits until the end of the film to note by means of on-screen text that the pipeline received all the required federal permits and nearly all those required by the state. Only one state permit remains before the pipeline can go forward. But the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has already begun tree clearing in North Carolina and plans to complete the underground project in late 2019. The natural gas will primarily be used to fuel Duke Energy power plants and will also be used by Piedmont Natural Gas for its residential and business customers.
Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee said by email that the company strove to respect the concerns of tribal leaders and native communities.
“We share the tribes’ commitment to protecting the environment and sacred cultural sites, and we’ve taken real and meaningful steps throughout the project to do so,” she said. “We’ve comprehensively surveyed the entire route for archeological and other cultural resources, and we’ve made survey reports available to interested tribes.”
The residents featured in the film are Robie Goins, a Robeson County landowner; Jordan Revels, a UNC Pembroke student; and Adrienne Kennedy, a “climate refugee” from Lumberton who was displaced by Hurricane Matthew. Not all of their editorial suggestions made the cut, Bethel said, noting that it would have been nearly impossible to honor community requests to include detailed legal, policy and scientific information in a mini-documentary.
Many suggestions were incorporated. They included quotes, music, a community gathering at the Lumber River and an emphasis on locals coming together for the cause.
“It changed in mood substantially in the course of these discussions,” Emanuel said. “It’s a little more serious and yet more uplifting. It also gained hopefulness.”