Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s newest film King Coal, which credits no less than 330 filmmakers with a “special thank you” after its full production crew receives their end credit scroll, is a work of excessive creative trust in the vision of its creators.

Sheldon admits to the difficulty in describing to collaborators exactly what the film would look like when finished. “Part documentary, part fable” is a phrase that often comes up in interviews. “A lyrical tapestry of a place and people” is the first fragment on its official website. But for a film that shoves coal right there in its title, the level of trust behind its creation might seem insurmountable for anyone whose name isn’t synonymous with “film” in Appalachia.

Elaine’s voice is present to guide the audience from the start, and even a complicated story can start with a familiar lump of wisdom. “Papaw always said that every new beginning starts with an end,” she says, an ordinary truth never-the-less relevant in dealing with the fundamentals of coal culture. If you burn away the chalky talking points on mineral rights and nonrenewable resources, you’re left with a nugget of inherited legacy. That’s what’s kept the culture moving, and that’s where Elaine’s narrative revolves.

This leaves a wide berth to explore the role of coal in Appalachian culture, and the question shifts from “What is the future of coal?” to “How have these people incorporated coal into their lives beyond economic necessity?” It was a promise of prosperity to the people of Appalachia, and to a lot of people looking in, coal was the only material that made them valuable. So, of course folks of southern Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky and “every square inch” of Sheldon’s home state of West Virginia and beyond welcomed it into their extra-curriculars: coal pageants, coal races, coal statues, a coal drop to bring in the new year, lucky nuggets of coal to touch on a walk to the football field, and artist Ben Kolb repurposes coal into a tool of artistic expression, mixing the dust with colorful dyes to create coal paintings. The presence of coal is reminiscent of an empire, and to Elaine, even parallels to the ghost of an omnipresent King Coal are too flimsy. This is a kingdom, or at the very least, what happens as one wanes.

Among the vignettes of modern coal culture are stitches of Elaine’s faceless monologue that weave King Coal into a poetic essay. Elaine also released a list of companion films that inspired her feature, spotlighting fellow Appalachian documentaries like Harlan County, U.S.A. and Stranger With A Camera, shouting out similarly delicate works by Chloe Zhao and embracing the imaginative minds of children with films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Florida Project. She captures the child’s perspective herself by directing two young girls in docu-narrative breaks, and their lives within the legacy of coal feel as innate as running water. But the scenes they spend bobbing around the Appalachian anthropocene — lying in the moss-coated woods, running by old company houses, dancing in front of coal transmission lines — inject a feeling of fantasy into this otherwise worldly experience.

Elaine’s voice also eases an audience through the suspended disbelief that King Coal is, in fact, one-sixteenth fantasy film. She recounts, as a little girl, how she accidentally scared her grandfather by simply tapping him on the back.

“I learned that day that most miners live closer to death,” she says. “That they are more like spiders or birds. Their bodies are more attuned to the sounds, smells and vibrations that can kill them. Those of us who don’t work underground don’t have these magic powers.” And, through thoughtful prose, we as an audience might begin to understand how going underground is like going into space. “Going somewhere where you’re the first person to touch that piece of earth.”

Outside of Elaine’s thoughtful script, director of photography and co-producer Curren Sheldon is hard at work translating the familiar imagery of Appalachia into the cinematic lexicon. Mist rolling off mountains, a barge drifting downriver, a train horn echoing miles through the valley. Somewhere, somebody stops to notice the brick wall crumbling behind a freshly painted mural. Underground, the screech of metal on rock carves a cavity deeper into the dark.

Some of this footage is incredibly difficult to capture. Even rarer, footage scraped from the state archives is unearthed and modernized to catch a glimpse, in full color, of what the lives of these pioneers looked like decades ago.

“They film this footage to show that our soot-covered lives can be beautiful,” says the voice of Elaine. It’s a truth even detractors will find hard to deny: King Coal is, at the very least, a treasure trove of refined Appalachian imagery.

And the lives of its denizens are beautiful. As anyone from Appalachia is keen to repeat, movie cameras in the mountains denote exploitative, messianic agendas more often than not. To practice humanitarian patience in representing a chronically misunderstood culture is commendable in its own right, but to go beyond journalistic objectivity and strive to become a proud and personable work of art? That might just be something new altogether, something Elaine McMillion Sheldon has proven over and over she’s more than capable of doing.