Powerful Reminders

Jennifer Snead

introduction for a discussion with Greg Matkosky at the Kelly Writers House, 2 April 2003

Greg Matkosky is a stickler for details. When he helped me move back to Philadelphia three years ago, he made an annotated checklist of all of my belongings down to the last knickknack, and then a color-coded diagram of how each and every piece would fit into the U-Haul I’d rented. Such are the obsessions of a director and cinematographer who earned his chops in Los Angeles working on over a hundred television projects and music videos: in the advertising and entertainment industry, every millisecond counts. Greg brought this painstaking attention to detail with him when he began to craft socially-conscious documentaries in 1998 as Creative Director of the Scranton, Pennsylvania-based United Studios of America. In its startling juxtapositions of details – images, bits of interviews, music, archival footage – Greg’s work repeatedly asks us to confront injustice, to question to the ways in which history is officially told, and to pay greater attention to the individual stories – details – that impact the communities within which we live.

Greg’s first feature-length documentary, Stories from the Mines (2000), depicted the violent path to recognition and unionization followed by the anthracite coal miners of northeastern Pennsylvania. Nominated for two mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards and nationally distributed by PBS, Stories from the Mines chips away at the myth of American industrial expansion by focusing on the thousands of immigrant miners who suffered and fought to better their working conditions. Stories from the Mines gives voices to the grimy faces of the miners and the tired eyes of their wives and children through the juxtaposition of archival footage, narrative, and dramatization, reminding us that history is made through the lives and actions of thousands of individuals.

This is no where more evident than in Greg’s two most recent films. A Dying Breath (2003), on black lung disease and its legacy among miners and their descendents in northeastern PA, juxtaposes the metal and machines of the current mining industry and the vast impersonality of the U.S. healthcare system with the vulnerability and fragility of retired miners struggling for breath and the family members who care for them. Midway through the film, retired miner and black lung victim Joe McHulsky says: “It’s hard for anyone who was never inside a mine to visualize what the inside of a mine was like, and what the working conditions were like.” Following a camera into that darkness, Greg gives us a glimpse into the dying culture of the old mining communities and asks us to question our sense of responsibility for the men and their families whose lives and labor were given over to providing the means of our economic prosperity. An Empty Place at the Table (2002), a film on domestic violence made in conjunction with the Women’s Resource Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania, centers on an art exhibit memorializing victims of domestic abuse through place settings at a table. Juxtaposing the comforting details of plates, silverware, and flowers with police reports and the harsh testimony of victims and families, An Empty Place at the Table reminds us that spousal and child abuse is not an individual problem but a collective one.

Details can be powerful reminders of individual experience and suffering that often goes unacknowledged; I thank Greg for his use of them to give voices to the silenced, make visible the invisible, and to remind us of our responsibilities for each other.