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KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will host the world premiere of “APPALACHIA: A History of Mountains and People,” a four-part documentary series narrated by Sissy Spacek and featuring at least seven current and former UT faculty members.

Presented by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Ready for the World initiative, the premiere will be held at 1 p.m. on Sept. 27 at McClung Museum. The event will include welcoming remarks by Robert J. Hinde, associate dean, College of Arts and Sciences, and Todd Diacon, vice provost for academic operations. The award-winning filmmakers — producer Jamie Ross and director Ross Spears — will attend.

“We’re very pleased to host the world premiere of this extraordinary documentary, which showcases the expertise of several of our faculty members and focuses on subjects of great cultural and historical significance to our region,” said Bruce Bursten, dean of UT Knoxville’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This marvelous presentation also embraces UT Knoxville’s Ready for the World initiative, an ongoing effort to give our students the global perspectives they need to succeed in today’s — and tomorrow’s — world.”

Funded by a major grant from the National Science Foundation, the documentary is a production of the James Agee Film Project. The documentary is scheduled to air on PBS as a series in February 2009.

UT is an appropriate venue for the world premiere of the film, Ross said.

“It’s in the heart of the region. It lended its talents to us. We filmed in the McClung Museum,” she said. “Knoxville is the incarnation of some of the best values of the region — smarts, independence, energy and diversity.”

Among the UT faculty who played a role in the film:

• Robert Hatcher, distinguished scientist and professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and an internationally recognized authority on the geology of the Appalachians;

• Jeff Chapman, director of the McClung Museum and research associate professor in the anthropology department;

• Don Byerly, professor emeritus, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and one of the country’s leading geologists in the study of the Appalachian Mountains;

• Paul and Hazel Delcourt, retired professors of ecology and evolutionary biology who have written about prehistoric Native Americans and ecological change;

• Wilma Dykeman, now deceased, a novelist and nonfiction writer who taught literature and creative writing at UT and wrote on a wide variety of subjects involving the culture and people of Appalachia.

In addition, the classical underscore of the film’s soundtrack was recorded on campus. Assistant Professor James Fellenbaum of the School of Music directed the UT Student Orchestra.

Ross said after she and Spears began working on the project eight years ago, they quickly realized that “the only way this story was going to make sense was to make the mountains the main character.”

In the process, they hit on something now known as “environmental history,” which she describes as “a different way of looking at human history. The environment is a character, not just a background.”

Although there are scholarly aspects to the film, it’s made to be appealing to the non-academic, too, Ross said.

“Watching the film, you get to travel through half a billion years of history in four hours,” she said. “You’ll meet people you’ll never forget and go places you’ve never seen. It’s a wonderful cast of characters who have the wit and wisdom of the Appalachians.”

Part 1 of the film, “Time and Terrain,” looks at how the Appalachian Mountains were created and tells the history of the area’s peoples with special emphasis on the Cherokee. The second part of the film, “New Green World,” covers natural resources, the impact of the French-Indian War and the American Revolution, Daniel Boone and the Trail of Tears.

Part 3, called “Mountain Revolutions,” explores the rich biodiversity of the area, agricultural life, the timber and coal industries, African-Americans in Appalachia and the coming of railroads and industrialists. The final part, “Power and Place,” includes the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the area’s literature and music, the effects of technology and environmental challenges and a thoughtful projection of the future of the region.

Part of the film follows Hatcher as he leads a class of graduate students into northeast Tennessee and into North Carolina to the Grandfather Mountain area.

“My role was to describe part of the geologic history of the Appalachians — to describe the geology and make the geology understandable,” Hatcher said, adding that Appalachia has a physical history that started a billion years ago and a human history that began a few thousand years ago.

Chapman, who appears in the film discussing Native American occupation and the area’s prehistoric past, said the documentary is stunning.

“The filming — especially the panoramas of the Smokies — is spectacular. It flows well. It’s highly informative,” he said.

McClung Museum houses four permanent exhibits that relate to the film: “Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee,” “Geology and the Fossil History of Tennessee,” “Treasures Past and Present: Freshwater Mussels” and “The Battle of Fort Sanders, November 29, 1863.”

Admission to the world premiere is free, but seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve a ticket and parking pass, complete the online form at

Subsequent showings of the film will be scheduled to accommodate those unable to attend the world premiere. Information about times and places will be released later.


Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034,