‘Mine 21’ wins Austen Riggs Erickson prize for Mental Health Media

Pictured: Kelsey Arbuckle (C’19) and Alexa Fults (C’21), both featured in the Mine 21 documentary. Photos courtesy of Fults.

By Anna Mann

Alexa Fults (C’21) received an email from the Alderson-Tillinghast Chair in the Humanities, Christopher McDonough, this summer, as she arrived to her lifeguarding job. They, as well as Kelsey Arbuckle (C’19) and Stephen Garrett (C’01), had received the Austen Riggs Erickson prize for their documentary Mine 21. The other 2019 winner of the award was Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir

Created by Garrett, produced by McDonough, and featuring both Arbuckle and Fults, the documentary boasted over 1,200 attendees when it was screened last fall, says McDonough. With a $3,000 prize, Fults says the money will go toward finishing the extended cut. 

The group will travel to Stockbridge, MA to receive their award on the weekend of November 1-3. According to the Austen Riggs Center, the award “recognizes a select group of media professionals, including journalists, writers, and others who create exemplary work that contributes to a deeper understanding of and greater public awareness about mental health issues.” 

As previously covered by The Purple, the documentary focuses on the 1981 explosion of Mine No. 21 in Whitwell, TN. The fatal event caused the death of 13 miners, including the grandfather of Arbuckle, Charlie Myers. Myers’s widow, Barbara, sued the federal government for negligence and gave a testimony before the U.S. Senate in order to ensure better safety regulations for workers. 

“Barbara Myers may be a modest woman working in McClurg, but she is truly an American hero,” said McDonough. “Her insistence that the mining industry pay attention to safety regulations saved many lives. That’s not my opinion, those are the words of professionals in the field.”

The professor went on to explain that the expanded version of the film will offer more context for the events through interviews with labor historians, mine safety experts, and psychiatrists. The longer cut will also contain an “emotional interview” with Chico Higgins, the last person working for Tennessee Consolidated Coal in Marion County, he said. 

According to McDonough, the group extended the original 15 minute cut to 30 minutes with hopes to screen the longer version at Homecoming. However, the documentary-makers won’t stop at premiering the continued project at Sewanee. 

“We want to make sure things are perfectly polished before we send it off to film festivals,” said Fults about the next steps. According to her, the group plans to continue submitting the documentary in academic settings and festivals to make connections before ideally moving on to larger platforms. 

As to the filming methods, Fults went on the explain how her studies abroad in transitional justice, therapeutic reconciliation, and the politics of memory have helped her with the filming of Mine 21

Fults behind the scenes of Mine 21.

“Part of the process of [reconciliation], like the non-legislative process of getting there, is called therapeutic reconciliation. It’s a little more vague, like you have a hall meeting and you talk, or you have victims and perpetrators actually speak to each other. Part of therapeutic reconciliation can be memorialization through film… and that’s part of what we did with Mine 21,” said Fults.

All members of the party found both the filming and the award extremely gratifying. McDonough finished by saying it was especially rewarding to see an important issue finally pushed into the limelight to receive the recognition it deserves. 

“Personally, I was very surprised when Mine 21 was nominated for the Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media by the Austen Riggs, and bowled over when we won. But in another way, I was not surprised,” he explained “The recognition by the Austen Riggs Center shows that it’s a story of national importance. Kelsey and Alexa tell it in a compelling way, and director Stephen Garrett is a talented filmmaker who makes it all so vivid.”

Edit: The article previously stated that Myers “went all the way to the Supreme Court in order to ensure better safety regulations for workers.” However, Myers gave testimony before the U.S. Senate on the disaster in the mine.