Hot-button issue documentaries

Posted by skoons on December 1, 2010 

Local residents will have a couple of opportunities in the next few days to attend screenings of documentaries that focus on controversial social issues.

In collaboration with the "At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron and Steam Since 1750" industrial imagery exhibit, the documentary "Coal Country" will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Palmer Museum of Art. The film introduces viewers to coal mining and mountaintop removal practices as well as stories of the Appalachian-area families affected by the coal industry. While coal mining may not be a hot issue in Centre County, the debates over driilling natural gas along the Marcellus Shale are closely related. Both issues deal with the question of whether generating alternative energy sources are worth the potential damage to the environment and local residents' health and welfare. In "Coal Country," director Phylis Geller interviews working miners along with activitists battling coal companies in Appalachia. Families have lived in the region for generations, and most have ancestors who worked in the mines. "Coal Country" endeavors to begin a public dialogue about the meaning behind promises of "cheap energy" and "clean coal." For more information, visit or call the Palmer Museum at 865-0772 or visit

A free community screening of "Out in the Silence," a documentary about the battle waged by a gay teen and his mother against recalcitrant school authorities when the teen is brutally attacked for coming out in his high school in Oil City, a small town in western Pennsylvania, will be at 7 p.m. Saturday at the 1 North Front Street Cafe in Phiipsburg. The screening will be followed by a Q & A session with filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, as well as local advocates, aimed at engaging the audience in conversation about the movement for inclusion, safety, fairness and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, particularly youth, in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Wilson and Hamer have said that they did not set out to make a documentary about LGBT issues, but after the couple announced their wedding in Wilson's hometown newspaper, The Derrick of Oil City, there was a firestorm of controversy initiated by the head of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, who also happened to call the area home.

Most of the film's action is based on footage of Wilson's interactions with Oil City residents. "The camera captures the rawness of emotions that occur when I go face-to-face with those who have used the publication of my wedding announcement to publicly denounce and denigrate gay and lesbian people," he said on the film's Web site. "I engage these folks in public parks and on city streets, in churches and schools, kitchens and living rooms, at community parades and government hearings to try to get at the core of the misunderstandings. In most cases, there is no room to maneuver, but in a few, something else begins to happen. Hatred's illogic begins to crumble and transformation occurs."

The "Out in the Silence" community engagement campaign has so far conducted more than 200 town-hall-style screenings across the country. Wilson, Hamer and local organizers are hoping that the Philipsburg event attracts people from across the spectrum ready and willing to engage in constructive dialogue. For more information, visit or the Facebook event page.

I think it's terrific that these two thought-provoking documentaries will be screening in Centre County. I also think it's great that they are playing in non-traditional venues, not regular movie theaters. Besides the fact that there's no admission charge, seeing a film away from a theater or in one's home may cause viewers to see the films as more educational and less as entertainment, and perhaps generate more discussion than they would in a regular theater, where a lot of audience members tend to leave as soon as the credits roll. I think that Philipsburg is a very appropriate place to screen "Out in the Silence," not because I think that most Philipsburg residents are bigoted, but because of the cultural differences between small towns like Philipsburg and big cities and university towns like State College. Some people in small towns, particularly high school students, may feel terrified by the thought of coming out, out of fear that they would be ostracized by the community, or worse. I probably won't be able to make it to the screening, but I hope that the film generates a lot of honest but respectful discussion among the audience members.

As a side note, I encourage you to check out "The Sicilian Girl" while it is still playing at the State Theatre. The last showings will be tonight and Thursday night. It is a superbly acted film based on the true story of Rita Atria, who grew up in a Mafia family in Sicily and vows revenge against the mob after her father and brother are murdered. The film deals with the Sicilian Mafia Wars of the 1980s and the trial of the mob ringleaders in 1991. The cinematography is brilliant, and the performances, especially by Veronica D'Agostino, who plays Rita, are raw and spellbinding. She brings a human element to the mafia violence.

So many great films to choose from this week —- don't miss out, and feel free to e-mail me your reviews at

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