Journalist John W. Miller first traveled through Moundsville, W.Va., while reporting on global mining for the Wall Street Journal.
The son of American expats living in Brussels, Belgium, Miller also has reported for Time and the Belgian news wires.
In the midst of a mid-life crisis, “or maybe I was burned out,” Miller, 41, says he quit the Journal and moved to Pittsburgh. Casting about for independent, local projects, he remembered Moundsville, a formerly thriving industrial town now struggling — like so many others — to reinvent itself, or just to survive.
He says he thought about writing a book but, after he met Pittsburgh filmmaker Dave Bernabo at a party, the two decided to make a documentary about the town.
“We’re co-directors, and (Bernabo) did all the camera work and technical editing,” Miller says.
The pair received funding from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.
“Moundsville” will have its local premiere Jan. 17 in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
The initial screening is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 7 in the 96-year-old Strand Theatre in Moundsville, which is south of Wheeling on the banks of the Ohio River. Miller says he and Bernabo are expecting to fill the 400-seat theater.
Miller says the story of Moundsville is like the story of other places, large and small, throughout the Midwest. One thing that sets it apart, though, is the feature that gives the town its name — a 60-foot-high burial mound created by the Adena people some 2,500 years ago.
“All these towns had some of the most important factories in the world,” he says. “Drive through them and they all have a nice bank built in the 1920s and a few shops on the main street, and now they’re not thriving.”
Surrounded by a wealth of natural resources, including coal, Moundsville was home to Louis Marx and Co., once the world’s largest toy manufacturer.
In a recent article for buzzfeed.com, Miller listed other things once made there, including steel, aluminum, bricks, glass and even airplanes.
Starting in the 1970s, global competition changed all that. These days, though unemployment in the area is relatively low, the high-paying factory jobs have given way to the lower wages of the service industry.
Many residents have adapted by starting their own cottage industries.
The story of change
In their documentary, Miller says he and Bernabo wanted to tell the story of change in the voices of Moundsville residents, without framing it through the larger narrative of “Trump, opioids and the rusting factory.”
“People in small town America don’t really know what’s going on in Washington, but they know what’s going on in their town,” he says. “Some of my favorite feedback I’ve heard from people who’ve seen the movie is that it reminds them of their hometown.”
Miller says he doesn’t see people being angry so much as sad about a way of life lost, and he thinks “Moundsville” can help them get through their grieving process.
It’s also instructive to think of the long-gone Adena and their mound.
“You have to remember that cultures change,” he says. “You can’t live in the past.”
The documentary will be available to rent or buy starting Dec. 15 at vimeo.com/ondemand/moundsville . Pre-orders are available.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, email@example.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.