Deep Down

A story from the heart of coal country
Year Released
Film Length(s)
58 mins
Remote video URL


Two friends find themselves on opposite sides of a battle over a mountaintop removal coal mine.

Featured review

Deep Down is--without a doubt--the most moving and insightful film yet on the issue of mountaintop removal and it reveals the complexities of a rogue industry that is threatening much more than trees and mountains, but an entire way of life and the soul of a proud people. This movie provides heroes that can stand as examples in any fight for social justice. Deep Down is hugely intelligent, haunting, and moving. I wish everybody in America could see this film.
Silas House
Author & Professor at Berea College in Berea, KY


Beverly and Terry grew up like kin on opposite sides of a mountain ridge in eastern Kentucky. Now in their fifties, the two find themselves in the midst of a debate dividing their community and the world: who controls, consumes, and benefits from our planet’s shrinking supply of natural resources? While Beverly organizes her neighbors to stop Miller Brothers Coal from advancing into her hollow, Terry considers signing away the mining rights to his backyard—a decision that could destroy both of their homes. This tale of social change examines the environmental, human, and cultural impacts of our actions.

With extensive educational resources that include a virtual reality game, educational curriculum, discussion guides, and the People Power short documentary series (available only on the educational DVD), Deep Down is a useful teaching tool in courses related to:

Environmental Studies

Women's Studies & Leadership

Community Organizing

Cultural Studies

Law & Public Policy


In Deep Down we see ordinary citizens successfully fight mountain top removal to keep their cultural landscape in tact. Though set in coal country, this film is about more than taking on king coal. It elegantly demonstrates the power of citizens' action anywhere to curb big industry exploitation and greed. Local residents of this eastern Kentucky community liken the painstaking process of learning about their own legal rights and coal industry regulations to peeling back the tight layers of an onion. At the center is a sweet morsel of victory nestled next to terrible knowledge of how much has been lost and may yet be lost. The makers of Deep Down have captured a poignant moment in the natural and social history of central Appalachia. And they have given all of us the call to action within our own communities, wherever they may be.
Dr. Katherine Roberts
American Studies Professor at UNC Chapel Hill
Deep Down is a revelatory film, breathtakingly poignant and poetic, and goes beyond the politics of protest to look at the inexorably connected lives of Appalachian residents...Incredibly resilient and prepared, Beverly May, who works as a nurse at a clinic for those without insurance, might be one of the most endearing and powerful anti-mountaintop removal spokeswomen in the nation.
Jeff Biggers
Huffington Post
Deep Down is flawlessly filmed and edited and the storyline ingenious. One could not have fabricated a finer heroic tale than this David and Goliath reality.
Jenny Sherman
San Francisco Examiner
Deep Down is a good example of its genre, telling a story rather than explaining an issue. Compelling narrative dominates the documentary, complemented by sufficient scientific facts to drive home the prevailing message: Coal is dirty. This heartbreaking but ultimately heartwarming account of a small mining community weaves in humor, color, and suspense, making it well worth a look.
Sarah A. Henderson
Sierra Club's "Green Life" Blog
Deep Down is a great story out of the heart of Coal Country, and a different kind of documentary. [...] Viewers get an inside look at what goes on in a movement orchestrated by ordinary citizens.
Betty Dotson-Lewis
The Daily Yonder
Skillful pacing and well-chosen characters drive directors Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin's story briskly through interviews, strategy sessions, committee meetings and town halls to a satisfying, though open-ended, conclusion.
Ali Gadbow
Missoula Independent
I just watched the DVD and Wow. I have seen a lot of videos about mountaintop removal, and this one is just wonderful, easily the best of them. Every single character in it felt real. I love the focus on Terry Ratliff's decision, and his friendship with Bev May, alongside the larger policy issue. It gives *everyone* a level where they can do something. Terry's decision is particularly relevant to the Marcellus Shale landowners too.
Nancy Gift
Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Acting Director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University
I cannot say how glad I was to see their victory after watching about 30 films made during the last decade, starting with Bob Gates' All Shook Up, showing Appalachians getting demolished by coal companies. As stated at the end of the film, the people like Beverly May are a model for all the other people in Appalachia who value their land more than a few dollars.
Steve Fesenmaier
West Virginia Gazette
Most films about mountaintop-removal coal mining have emphasized its environmental destruction and been told overwhelmingly from the opponents' point of view. The latest cinematic treatment of the subject takes a different tack, looking at the controversy through the lives of two friends in Eastern Kentucky: one who opposes surface mining, the other who agonizes over leasing his land for it.
Al Cross
The Rural Blog
The documentary succeeds in putting a human face to mountaintop removal mining. It showcases the divides that the mountaintop removal debate caused in the community, and the struggles that residents went through to save their community--both the physical land and the relationships that tie the community together.
Eco-Journey Blog
Eco-Journey Blog
The film and multimedia outreach campaign explore the complexities of mining in the Appalachian region through an intimate portrait of one tight-knit community facing the economic and environmental impacts represented by fossil fuel extraction. Deep Down cuts across the issue and explores human friendship and the relationship of people to our planet.
Rob Perks
Natural Resources Defense Council
The film unfolds like two cloggers taking their turn around the dance floor; evil looms, cloaked as the coal company seeking to buy up private land to turn into a mountaintop mining site; conflict emerges as the landowner waffles back and forth over selling to the coal company; and a proud, passionate heroine works tirelessly day and night to collect petitioners and speak boldly against the villain coal, all the while playing sweet mountain melodies on her companion fiddle.
Bill Goodman
New Southerner
We won't give away how it ends, but it's precisely this intimate look at the people directly affected by these decisions that makes the documentary so compelling. It tackles a big issue by going small, and whether you live in Appalachia or not, chances are it'll make you think twice about leaving the lights on.
Garden & Gun
Garden & Gun
While Deep Down showcases an individual town's struggle, the narrative thoughtfully touches on universal themes such as stewardship of God's creation for the benefit of future generations, the importance of community and connection to place, and the problem of what to do when short-term needs and profit threaten to compromise the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities, and ecosystems.
Anna Jane Joyner
Flourish Magazine
The filmmakers tell their story with sensitivity and a strong visual sense. In one particularly arresting image, May and Ratliff, who are longtime neighbors and friends, perform a traditional mountain folk dance in which they come close but never touch. Their unassuming artistry conveys a combination of attraction and wariness, making it a vivid artifact of the Appalachian culture the mining is threatening to destroy.
Tom Jacobs
Beautiful shots of the Kentucky countryside play off against Ratliff pointing out land effectively restored by a mining company. Deep Down may allude to the coal beneath Maytown. But it also alludes to the common values that its residents share.
Peter Wong
Beyond Chron: San Fransico's Alternative On-line Daily
Deep Down is a beautiful work -- as much a moving portrait of Appalachia as a powerful document on mountaintop removal.
Ted Parks
Associate Professor, Lipscomb University & Co-curator of HumanDocs Film Series
It's a great source of pride to me to see average folks stand up and make extremely articulate arguments for their views -- on both sides. On film, Terry Ratliff courageously goes through the same mental debate that we all go through when we're facing an ethical decision. The beauty of this film is that it brings out the best, most thoughtful aspects of human nature as we confront the challenges of modern society.
Dodd Galbreath
Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Lipscomb University
Rather than punching through a list of statistics or slapping viewers with jarring scenes of devastation, Deep Down approaches the issue in a deeply personal way, looking at lives rather than landscapes, with passionate pleas for a better approach to coal mining. Especially interesting are the film's theological undertones. An early scene depicts a piece of mining machinery affixed with a JESUS IS LORD banner, a sign of the intersection of theology and creation care.
Jonathan Merritt
Christianity Today

Awards and Screenings

Award of Merit, first place feature documentary, University Film & Video Association (UFVA), 2012
Emmy nomination, New Approaches to News & Documentary Category, 2011
PBS Independent Lens (national PBS broadcast), 2010
U.S. State Department's American Documentary Showcase, 2011
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, 2010
ITVS Community Cinema, 2010
Banff Mountain Culture Award
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, 2010
Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival, 2010

Director Commentary

The following is an interview with filmmakers Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin for PBS' Independent Lens blog about the making of Deep Down.

What impact do you hope Deep Down will have?

We have three main goals for impact: 1) to connect Americans in a new way to Appalachia, its mountains, and its people; 2) to raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining and support related policy; and 3) to inspire mindfulness around energy consumption and increase demand for alternative energy.

What led you to make this film?

We began with the desire to make a film about industry and socioeconomic class in America, which led us to explore the Appalachian region. Our families are from the mountains of east Tennessee and the small town industrial community of Peoria, Illinois, so we had personal connections to rural working America and the Appalachian region. We were committed to putting a new face on Appalachia, to offer the people of this region a look at their lives through the lens of outside media that was different than what had been previously offered. We then discovered mountaintop removal coal mining, and knew right away that this was the issue our film would explore.

We were looking for a story we could follow from start to finish, and it was then a matter of finding subjects on the cusp of a story who could carry a rich and personal story and provide complex perspectives. In June 2007, we met Beverly May, who introduced us to her friend Terry, and we were off and running.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Deep Down?

There were several challenges: being West Coast filmmakers trying to make a long-form cinema verité documentary portrait, which required access and intimacy to tell the story in the way we wanted to tell it, was difficult at times. Gaining the kind of access we wanted -- and keeping it -- was always hard. We believe that our subjects, always cognizant of our potential bias and concerned as much about the integrity of the film as we were, kept us on our toes and made us better filmmakers. Additionally, not being from Appalachia ourselves, and being lifelong environmentalists, we definitely initially had a one-sided view. When we saw the horrific mountaintop removal mines, our first reaction was to think that it had to stop immediately, without really questioning what was behind this issue, what alternatives were immediately available, and who, ultimately, was responsible for causing this destruction. Once we began uncovering the intricacies of the topic, and recognized how deeply reliant Appalachia is on coal, the film and its message became much more complex.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in the film?

We gained the trust of our subjects the same way trust is built in any friendship or relationship: by spending time with them, by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and by proving ourselves reliable and worthy of their trust. Returning repeatedly to the region for almost three years, and keeping in touch with genuine interest between our visits, showed these folks that we were here to stay, that we weren't looking to "grab a story" and leave, that we wanted to understand the issue, and that we were willing to spend the time and the resources to do it. In doing so, we had to let go of our own hang-ups, and really, truly listen with love and compassion.

What would you have liked to include in the film that didn't make the cut?

In the interest of time, many of our favorite, patient scenes that reflected the lifestyle and culture of Appalachia hit the cutting room floor. This is such a precious America region, with a feel all its own. We would've loved to make a film twice as long, which let the viewer just drink in what it's like to be in this place. Luckily, with so many forms of media now available to our audiences, we were able to create the Virtual Mine game project and a short video series called People Power out of the many other stories we touched upon during production.

Tell us about a scene in Deep Down that especially moved or resonated with you.

The scene where Terry and Beverly, the film's two protagonists, are seated at a table, discussing their views of mountaintop removal is a scene in which "the rubber meets the road," and in which our two protagonists disagree. In the scene, we feel for both of them, and they both make extremely articulate points about their perspectives and challenges. Watching the scene, one can't help but reflect on one's own connection to these issues.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

People in Appalachia have embraced the film wholeheartedly, with sentiments best exhibited in the following quote: "I watched Deep Down today and I am in tears. It is amazing. I've never seen a film like it about Appalachia, mountaintop-removal-focused or not. People are articulate, singing German opera, talking about democracy and destroyer goddesses, houses are beautiful and clean, neighbors love each other and are civil despite differences, there are no barefoot children.... I know this all sounds silly, but seriously, this is one of the first films I've seen about eastern Kentucky done by people not from the area that represents us like people who are just like everybody else, while lifting up our unique culture in a good way."

We have also been thrilled, and at times surprised, to learn how intimately people connected to the story who were not from Appalachia, or who are from very different backgrounds; from mining communities in Columbia to immigrant community on the South Side of Chicago dealing with a power plant at the end of the energy chain. It is particularly moving to hear about struggles of small communities in the Midwest, the South, or across the globe who are dealing with the same types of issues, and who connect so powerfully to Beverly May.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?

One thing that keeps us motivated through all of the challenges is having a film partner. Being accountable to someone you respect and admire, and working together for a shared vision, is invaluable. Creating this project and carrying it through together allows us to experience firsthand the utter magic that comes from the synergy of creativity, passion, commitment, hard work, and activism. The passion that ignites us and brings us together as collaborators makes life worth living.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

We wanted to reach the largest audience possible, and the idea of making a film that was by the people and for the people, made with the help of tax dollars and broadcast in a way that was accessible to everybody fit naturally with the core values and goals of the film. After we created our first cut of the film, we began showing it to mentors and advisors. One of them, Judy Holme Agnew, saw the story emerging from that (long, messy) cut and encouraged us to think big. After that, we set our sights on public television, ITVS funding, and distribution on one of the national PBS series. We hope this will be the first of our many such projects that will find a home and a diverse audience on public television.

You've done dozens of screenings across the country. What are some of the questions commonly asked by your audiences?

People often ask us whether we attempted to involve the coal company and mining community in our film, and the answer is yes, persistently and through every avenue imaginable. We made contacts at the upper echelons of the mining company through family connections, we called and spoke to them openly, we interviewed and filmed with folks from the industry who ultimately would not participate in the film for fear of losing their jobs. The truth of the matter is, people are afraid of retribution, and we understand why. There are no more coal-mining unions in Appalachia to protect these workers. With industrialization, and with giant machinery like a dragline, mining can be done with fewer and fewer people, so competition over jobs becomes all the more intense. Ironically, the fewer jobs there are, the greater a wedge is driven forcing people in a tightly knit community apart, into those who make their living directly or indirectly through mining, and those who suffer the consequences. In the end, we were able to incorporate the voice of a local mining engineer, an old family friend of the Ratliffs, who contributes his own balanced and complex view of mining, and voices of the miners, their families, and company representatives at the public hearings we captured. Although Beverly and Terry provide sometimes opposing and always complex perspectives on coal mining, we do wish the folks from Miller Brothers Coal had been willing to speak with us so we could include their perspective in the film, but we don't think their absence detracts too much from the story we were trying to tell, which isn't ultimately about the company, it is about people in their own lives grappling with the consequences of our energy consumption.

What didn't you get done when you were making the film?

Sleeping. Relaxation. Vacation. Dating. Laundry.

What are your three favorite films?

What, only three? We have about 100 documentary favorites. But if we have to choose three, we were highly influenced by Flag Wars, The Farmer's Wife (by our Executive Producer David Sutherland), and Harlan County, USA. For a moment, we considered naming our film Floyd County, USA as a nod to Barbara Kopple and an update to the impact of mining in Appalachia.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

If you're considering a career in the field of documentary film, go. Do it. There is no more rewarding career on this planet. And: don't even think about making a film on a subject you're not totally passionate about. The sacrifices you'll have to make to get the film to the level you want it are countless, and what will keep you going is the feeling that you simply can't die happy if this film doesn't get made. Also: be kind to yourself; consider doing it with a partner. We could not have made this film without each other. Humility and collaboration go a long way, and partnership gives you plenty of opportunities to practice both. The lessons we have learned through working together will make us better partners in all of our future relationships and endeavors.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Kentucky Moonshine.

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