“All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!” — Pioneers! O Pioneers! Excerpt by Walt Whitman

Clara Lehmann and Jonathan Lacocque are two filmmakers trailblazing the way for West Virginia’s film scene. Their newest documentary, O Pioneer, reflects on a bygone era of manifest destiny and redefines the pioneer within us all. 

The film champions three West Virginians in traditional labor fields, a blacksmith, a seamstress and a hospital chaplain, as they persevere through personal struggles during the pandemic. The film premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California this August where it received the Audience Choice Award in the Documentary Feature Category.  

Clara and Jonathan reside in Helvetia, WV. They are the co-founders of Coat of Arms; a creative studio that specialized in everything from corporate brand design to documentaries and short films. 

Q: Have you always been interested in filmmaking?

Clara:  I was always interested. I didn’t think it could be a career, because I just didn’t see that. I didn’t see film as something that you could pursue around me in West Virginia. Growing up here, I didn’t know any filmmakers. My mother exposed me to a lot of different types of films and classics, things that maybe you wouldn’t normally watch if you were mainstream. I think that it made me appreciate it, but it didn’t allow me to see that it was an appropriate avenue for study. 

Jonathan: I would always be making comics, telling stories and trying to do little comedic routines. I made film clubs at high school, but didn’t think it was a career. It was just for fun.

Q: How did you get started as a filmmaker?

Jonathan: After college, I started a wedding videography company with my best friend, John. It was basically bringing [in] money through weddings to then fund our passion project, which was a documentary called a Perfect Soldier.

Clara: I got to work on that film too. The edit was brutal. I got to do an editing script, and that’s where we kind of started really working together. It was that first doc as a team. It was wonderful.

“Once that bug hits you, it’s an addiction in some ways, you can’t let it go even if it’s not a moneymaker.”

Q: What inspired you to explore the narrative of pioneering?

Clara: I remember my grandmother reciting the Walt Whitman poem Pioneers, Oh Pioneers. [I] reflected on that and was curious about how American culture is based on a lot of extraction. But also, the pioneer today is something that’s very unreachable. It’s something that we hail and put on a pulpit. We are not considered pioneers unless we’ve cured cancer and things like that. That juxtaposition of those two things was curious to me, and I felt it really relates to some of the things that West Virginia experiences. We see, a lot of times, that we’ve had things taken from us.

“We’re told to bootstrap, keep your chin up and keep going. It just seemed unfair that we can’t celebrate who we are without the tired stories that we’ve seen over and over.”

Q: How did you structure the production process through the pandemic?

Clara: We had online interviews for the first few months. We also were really intentional and filmed a lot of the work outside. West Virginia has a beautiful scenery and backdrop to play with, so a lot of the work was designed to be outside so that we would get around COVID. In the end, I think it was a benefit to the film. 

Jonathan: It was a very beautiful silver lining through what we were all experiencing, because we were able to showcase more of West Virginia’s beauty and find poetic moments with each of our participants.

Clara: The last thing we did that kind of seems like it may be due to COVID, which really isn’t the case, is animation. Our creative studio does a lot of illustration work. So we were like, there’s no way we shouldn’t be utilizing this tool and ability. We integrated several 3D and 2D scenes throughout the film in order to elevate and tell a more robust story.

Opening Credits created for O Pioneer

Q: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are maybe breaking in the scene?

Jonathan: Find a way to enjoy the journey first.

“Accolades may come; they may not, but you can absolutely have a successful, fruitful, joyful career without being an Oscar winning or Grammy winning artist. There’s so many of us out there, but there’s space for all of us.”

Clara: Filmmaking is a team sport. It’s only gonna get better with more involvement of those teammates and the audience included. I think you’ll find that it becomes better and more reflective of what you’re trying to capture, if you rely on and trust your fellow artist. I hope that we, in West Virginia, can really build up that community and trust, because we need each other.

Jonathan: I will add, never be afraid to ask questions, and to approach people that you admire or that you want to learn from.

O Pioneer will be showcased alongside other Appalachian films at the MTN Craft Film Festival in Clarksburg, WV on September 29-30. You can follow the film at @opioneerfilm or @coatofarmspost on Instagram and at opioneer.com. Read more about this film and other West Virginia filmmakers, in Issue 2 of YNST Magazine!