Eyes turn to ‘Dust’

Ken Burns’ latest among offerings at Shepherdstown film fest

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Visitors to this week’s American Conservation Film Festival will have the chance to see Ken Burns’ latest documentary – “The Dust Bowl” – weeks before history lovers in the rest of the nation.

Susan Shumaker, a Morgantown resident who is an associate producer for the film, will be on hand at the Shepherdstown Opera House at noon Friday. She’ll introduce the film, one of more than five dozen documentaries to be screened during the four-day festival.

“The Dust Bowl” – the new documentary by historian Ken Burns – is one of 65 films being offered this week in Shepherdstown during the American Conservation Film Festival. The new documentary details the dreadful aftermath that followed America’s frenzied wheat boom and a decade-long drought that brought “black blizzards” to the Plains starting in 1931.

Topics examined on the big screen during the festival will include global warming, ocean health, food issues, nuclear energy, garbage, songbirds, over-consumption, rain forests and more.

“The Dust Bowl” draws on interviews with more than two dozen elderly Americans who lived through the Dust Bowl. Some of whom passed away not long after talking with Burns’ team.

The survivors recounted “a decade-long natural catastrophe – not just one or two or three horrific dust storms, but 10 years of them,” Shumaker explained in an interview. “The drought and dust, combined with the economic hardships of the Great Depression, made the Dust Bowl a heartbreaking tragedy.”

Following Friday afternoon’s showing, Shumaker will take questions from audience members. “The Dust Bowl” will be screened at the festival a second time on Sunday afternoon, with a second Q.-and-A. session with Shumaker planned.

Shumaker and other documentary researchers, filmmakers, directors and other insiders will be in Shepherdstown starting on Thursday as the four-day festival kicks off its 10 th season.

The American Conservation Film Festival has the same aim as its initial season in 2003: to draw attention to the day’s vital environmental issues. This year, the festival schedule includes 65 films, many of them new or rarely screened, all of them selected by a jury that includes top conservation experts.

The movies will be shown in and around Shepherdstown, at sites on the campus of Shepherd University, at the Shepherdstown Opera House and in the state-of-the-art Byrd Auditorium at the National Conservation Training Center.

Shumaker, a West Virginia native who earned her bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University and then a master’s of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, previously worked with Duncan and Burns on the Emmy-winning “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and has begun work on another Burns project examining the roots of country music that’s penciled in to debut on PBS in 2018.

For those who cannot come to Shepherdstown, the documentary will premiere on PBS at 8 p.m. on Nov. 18 and 19 – two episodes, each two hours long. More details may be found at pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl.

“The project was a longtime dream of our writer, Dayton Duncan, who first got to know the area that was hardest hit during the Dust Bowl while working on a book called ‘Miles From Nowhere,’ “ said Shumaker, who joined Burns’ Florentine Films as an intern in 2002. “He began hearing stories about the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and was taken by the enormity of the tragedy.”

Part of what makes the disaster so riveting, Shumaker says, is the fact that it could have been prevented.

“The grassland in that part of the country had evolved over millions of years to adjust to the droughts, high winds and violent weather extremes common to the area,” she said. “[But] in the space of 20 or 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century, the buffalo grass was plowed under in an economic frenzy to plant wheat. When the drought of the 1930s hit, all that exposed and pulverized soil took to the skies. People worried that the breadbasket of the nation would literally be swept away, and we would be left with a vast Sahara-like desert in the middle of North America.”

The Dust Bowl has been called “a classic American bubble story,” with humans pushing too hard against nature and nature pushing back, Shumaker said.

“The story of the Dust Bowl is a story of human greed and human limitations – but also of human perseverance in the face of unbelievable adversity,” she said. “I think that, if we don’t respect the limits of nature and the limits of our understanding of the earth now – as was the case then – it is very possible that something like this could happen again.

“As Harry Truman said, ‘The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know.’ “

Shumaker conducts much of her research from the family farm where she lives with her husband, son and daughter, but she also travels to far-flung locations, including the Plains for “The Dust Bowl,” and also to archives and libraries, where she digs through files and boxes “hoping to discover something that no other researcher has found.”

Another title at this week’s festival has a West Virginia ties: “Our Nation’s River: A System on Edge,” a 10-minute film on the health of the Potomac River. The movie was made by Alexandra Cousteau, a conservationist and the granddaughter of famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau.

“On Coal River” was made in the coalfields not far from Charleston. Filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood spent more than six years on the film, which chronicles the David-and-Goliath struggle between a former coal miner and coal interests.

Other Mountain State-centric festival offerings include “Roots and Hollers,” examining those who hunt American ginseng in the wild, a pursuit where challenges include urban sprawl, over-harvesting and strip-mining; Shepherdstown resident Jim Surkamp’s “Danske Dandridge’s Garden,” a look at the poet and gardener Caroline “Danske” Dandridge, who lived in Shepherdstown from 1854 to 1914; and “Man-Eating Super Croc,” a film shot in the Philippines by National Geographic producer (and Shepherdstown Opera House owner) Lawrence Cumbo.

The American Conservation Film Festival is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting vital conservation issues through film.

Lissa Cobetto has been the festival director since 2011. She became involved in the festival as an attendee after moving to the Eastern Panhandle in 2006. Previously, she’d served on staff as the business manager of Shepherdstown’s Contemporary American Theater Festival.

 

 

 

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