New Interactive Documentary Captures America's Love Affair With Coal

A screenshot of the web-based film, "Coal: A Love Story."

Environmental concerns, economical contradictions, and social ties give America's coal industry an endless variety of perspectives -- making it a daunting story to be told.

However, one group of storytellers used the challenge as inspiration to develop an entirely new documentary style.

Chock-full of infographics, anecdotes, and striking videos, Coal: A Love Story presents the complicated relationship between the U.S. and its largest energy source. The project comes from Powering A Nation, a group of both present and former students of the
School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. It is funded by the Carnegie and Knight foundations.

In past projects, Powering A Nation focused on telling the story of a variety of U.S. energy issues at once. This year, it produced a documentary devoted to the conflicting, complicated story of one source. 

But this isn't a traditional documentary. Delphine Andrews, managing editor of the project, told Counterspill about the design of the site. Her team wanted to present the flow of the story in a linear way, yet still give users the ability to pick and choose their own experience.

“That’s how we’re guiding people through it, even though they can guide it in whatever way they want,” she says. 

Viewers can scroll through the documentary through photo stills and short phrases, called "lyrics", and select whatever narrative they would like to experience -- from beauty queen pageants to ghost towns to protest lines. 

All sides of the debate are represented and serve to tell the story of both love and hate. The emotions behind the problem, Andrews says, are just as important to remember as the facts.

"It's about human connection," she says. "It's not really just about coal. It's about human nature more than anything else. Looking at everything and knowing that it's not a black and white issue, it's very much gray."

Beyond stories, the interactive documentary also features tools, like energy calculators and access to hard data, all in an effort to inform the public to make an empowered decision. 

“That was our big thing -- a lot of people don’t really understand where their energy comes from and so we kind of wanted to make that tie in," says Andrews. “Your computer, you turn on the lights -- that comes from coal. And now that you know that, you can look for a plan B.”

Coal: A Love Story from Powering a Nation on Vimeo.