Filmmakers discuss ‘Impossible Town’ ahead of West Virginia screening tour

By Matthew Young, RealWV

“The film is really about the people in Minden, and the struggles that they’ve had. There’s different perspectives and different viewpoints of who the camera is following, but the center of the story is what’s going on in Minden – how people have been working so hard and they’re still not getting what they really need.”

That’s what former W.Va. State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad told RealWV about the new documentary “Impossible Town.” The film tells the story of Minden, a rural West Virginia town plagued by cancer-causing chemicals, and the struggles faced by the residents left behind after the EPA declared the town a Superfund site nearly 40 years ago. 

Amjad’s involvement in Minden developed as the continuation of her father’s work, after his unexpected passing in 2017. The effort now continues in the hopes of securing residents of the town a path to relocation. 

“The heart of the story is really the people in Minden, not necessarily what I was doing during that time – or so-and-so was doing during that time – it’s really this whole community that’s not getting the help that they needed,” Amjad said.

Dr. Ayne Amjad.

The film has been the four-year passion project of Co-directors Meg Griffiths and West Virginia native Scott Faris, whose connection to Amjad is a small town story in itself. 

“About five years ago, (Faris) was trying to find some inspirational West Virginia stories,” Amjad explained. “He ran into a high school classmate of mine who told him a little about what I was doing in Minden. Scott did some research, and called me saying that they decided to do a documentary.”

“They didn’t think it would take four-and-a-half-years,” Amjad added. “They thought they would just do a little short piece about what’s going on there – but it led to a much longer piece.”

While Griffiths and Faris have collaborated on more than 100 short films over their decade-long partnership, this is the duo’s first feature-length project. 

“For as long as I could remember, I’ve wanted to tell a story about my home state of West Virginia,” Faris, who grew up in Bridgeport, told RealWV. “Meg (Griffiths) and I recognized pretty early on that when we have the opportunity to do our work in places that feel like home, the work is that much more meaningful, and powerful, and poignant.”

“We do our best work in places that feel like home,” Faris added. “To be honest, we did not know initially that this would be a feature. We thought we would make another short documentary, which is our bread and butter.”

Griffiths, a native Texan, shares Faris’ sense of attachment to West Virginia. Though not a Mountaineer herself, she notes many similarities to her home state.

“I think that both Texas and West Virginia are places that people who have never visited or spent time there make assumptions about,” Griffiths said. “Sometimes those assumptions are correct, but there’s a lot that goes missing.”

“I also think they’re similar in the way that people take care of each other,” Griffiths added. “They take care of their neighbors, and take the time to really understand the people who live around them. I think there’s a kind of kinship that comes from living in these kinds of places, and I feel really fortunate that I got to spend time in West Virginia, and also that we were able to share a little bit of that through the film.”

Both filmmakers explained that it wasn’t until they spent time in the town itself with the residents who live there, that they truly understood just how deep the story of Minden goes. 

“We realized how much time we would need to do it justice,” Faris noted. “It, over time, slowly sort of turned into a feature as we kept coming back.”

At a run time of 93 minutes, Faris jokingly hopes the film’s length does not test the patience of viewers. Thus far, it seems, the film’s length has not been an issue.

Griffiths and Faris noted that the first screening of “Impossible Town” happened in May during The Mountainfilm Festival, in Telluride, Colorado. While the filmmakers felt lucky to be invited, they were rushed to complete the film in time for the screening. Their hard work paid off, however, as the depiction of the struggles in a small Appalachian town was well-received by the western audience.  

“There was a great outpouring of concern and sympathy for the people of Minden, and a great amount of admiration for Dr. Amjad for the work that she’s put in alongside community activists, like Darrel Thomas and Susie Worley Jenkins,” Faris said. “The resounding reaction that we’re getting is that people are forced to think twice about some of the preconceptions and stereotypes about West Virginians, and people from this state.”

“Impossible Town” was scored by Emmy-nominated composer Nathan Halpern. Halpern is the man behind the music featured in such Oscar-nominated films as “Minding the Gap,” and “The Martha Mitchell Effect.” According to Griffiths and Faris, securing Halpern’s involvement in “Impossible Town” was “a shot in the dark.”

“We feel very grateful to have an absolutely beautiful score,” Faris said. “We very intentionally wanted to avoid the types of sounds that you might expect to hear in an Appalachian film, like banjo, or explicit references to bluegrass. We went with more of a sparse and organic soundscape. We wanted to go against some of the stereotypes, and maybe surprise people a little bit with the look and feel of the film.”

“Impossible Town” will begin a five day regional screening tour of West Virginia on Wednesday, at West Virginia University’s Gluck Theatre, in Morgantown. 

Admission to these five screenings is free, and will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. The full screening schedule is as follows:

  • Morgantown, W.Va.: Gluck Theatre at WVU – Wed., Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m.
  • Wheeling, W.Va.: Towngate Theatre at Oglebay Institute – Thurs., Oct 5, at 7 p.m.
  • Charleston, W.Va.: The Culture Center Theatre – Fri. Oct. 6, at 7 p.m.
  • Fayetteville, W.Va.: Historic Fayette Theatre – Sat., Oct. 7, at 7 p.m.
  • Beckley, W.Va.: The Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre – Sun., Oct. 8, at 5:30 p.m.

This screening series is made possible with support from Anonymous Was a Woman in partnership with The New York Foundation for the Arts, The Real WV, and Universe Creative.

For more information about the film and upcoming screenings, visit impossibletown.com.

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