West Virginia, Bolivia cope with change

Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s film “Timberline” chronicles a West Virginia town undergoing economic pressure.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s film “Timberline” chronicles a West Virginia town undergoing economic pressure. Submitted

In 1970, author and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote “Future Shock,” an examination of how the pace of change was affecting society. On the opening day of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, audiences saw two documentaries that look at different cultures coping with change — one economic, one environmental.

In Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s short film “Timberline,” residents of Sugar Grove in Pendelton County, West Virginia, are trying to cope with the closing of Sugar Grove Naval Base, which intercepted communications and once housed 450 people. The Navy chose the unusual site in the early 1960s because its elevation prevented interference from radio signals. The base was closed recently and auctioned for about $4 million. The National Security Agency still uses a nearby (and highly secret) underground bunker, where employees of Sugar Grove Naval Base once worked.

Using archival footage, newspaper clippings and interviews with local residents, Sheldon tells this story of economic uncertainty with a high degree of humor. The naval base “put Sugar Grove on the map,” says Clinton Bowers, the town’s postmaster, one of the residents Sheldon interviewed. Bowers, who also runs a store that has been in his family for generations, jokes that the base was offered to the state for a dollar, but somehow the governor could not come up with the money. Bowers says he might have been able to finance the sale.

In a question-and-answer session, Sheldon said taking the humorous approach seemed natural. “The people are very light-hearted about it all,” she said. Two men dressed in white shirts, presumed to be NSA agents, provide a perhaps unintended moment of humor. They came to Bowers’ store as Sheldon and her husband Kerrin Sheldon, who also worked on the film, were interviewing Bowers, ostensibly to buy a drink but most likely to check out the filmmakers. The NSA knew that filmmakers were in the county, Sheldon said.

Her film shows residents gathered listing to a radio transmission of the federal government auction of the base. Prices range from the tens of thousands to $4 million. The base was sold to a man named Robert Pike, who plans to convert the property to a health-care facility. Pike is an elusive character, Sheldon said. Reporters have tried to find him, and she also made the effort during filming. The business that bought the building is registered in Birmingham, Alabama, but otherwise the search for the elusive Pike continues.

“There’s no hospital in the whole county,” Sheldon said of the developer’s plans. Residents of Sugar Grove “are hoping this will come true.”

Sheldon is from West Virginia and still lives there. Her films — “Betting on Trump: Coal” and “Hollow” — document her home state. “I feel like I have the best access” to the people of West Virginia, she said in an interview after the screening. “I’m trusted in my state.” Not many filmmakers are telling stories about the state, “and I’m happy to be there,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon’s film was paired with Pieter Van Eecke’s film “Samuel in the Clouds.” The film chronicles the experiences of Samuel Mendoza, who continues to operate his family’s ski lift on Mount Chacaltaya in the Bolivian Andes, the highest ski resort in the world. Mendoza explains to some visitors that skiing was once possible at the resort year-round, but with the melting of the glacier because of global warming, that is not possible. Van Eecke contrasts winter footage, in which Mendoza and several assistants help a tour bus through slushy snow, with images of him leading a hike up the snowless peaks during warmer months. Van Eecke painstakingly documents ice melting, and the effect of the melting ice on Mendoza’s lodge where tourists come to ski.

It takes Mendoza a good four hours to walk from the mountain to his family’s home in La Paz. His wife — citing his bad knees and vision impaired by years of looking at light reflections from snow — asks Mendoza when he plans to give up the resort. Meanwhile, he has allowed scientists to set up equipment on Mount Chacaltaya, where they collect air samples for research into global warming.

Both “Timberline” and “Samuel in the Clouds” are among 71 new documentaries that are in competition for awards to be announced Sunday. The festival continues today, Saturday and Sunday.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1