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New documentary about 2021 tornado outbreak to premiere at Louisville film festival this week

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Courtesy of Jonathan Petramala
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The aftermath of the December 2021 tornado outbreak in western and central Kentucky as captured by the crew of "165 Miles: Catastrophe in Kentucky," a new 43-minute documentary premiering at Louisville's International Festival of Film later this week.

A new, independently produced documentary featuring interviews with victims of the December 2021 tornado outbreak in western and central Kentucky is set to premiere later this week.

The independent three-man crew known as Climate Productions has been working on the documentary — called 165 Miles: Catastrophe in Kentucky, in reference to the length of the long-track tornado at the heart of the historic storm system — since the day of the storm.

The 43-minute film features footage from the disaster as well as interviews with experts and survivors. Writer/producer Jonathan Petramala says these interviews are a vital historical document and he wanted to capture these raw emotions on the record.

“This is a story of survival. These stories are going to be told for generations,” Petramala said. “The people that survived that day, their kids are going to tell their grandkids about the day that the tornado came through and what had happened to their dad's house, or their mom's house, their grandma's house or their own house.”

Petramala collaborated on the documentary with videographer/producer Brandon Clement and director/producer Andy Coates. This is the trio’s first feature, though they’ve done two series for The Weather Company’s website: Disaster Road, an award-winning series that examines how climate change has sparked multiple disasters along a Texas highway, and Parched And In Peril, which looks at the permanent changes to California’s landscape brought by climate change.

Right now, all three of the filmmakers are on assignment in Florida covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ian’s impact.

The three — who are based all around the southeastern U.S. — went independent for 165 Miles, Petramala said, because of the scope and breadth of the destruction in Kentucky.

“I've worked for local television news or national news for the last 15 years, but I always kept seeing that, a few days after a disaster, the voice kind of goes away. [People] move on to the next thing. With this I saw an opportunity to go more in depth and to follow the story longer,” Petramala said. “Such a key thing in disasters like these is that people want to have their stories told. They want to share what has happened to them because this is usually the biggest event that happened in their life.

“You don't want to be forgotten.”

The stories of more than a dozen survivors made it into the final documentary, with most of those interviews taking place within a month of the disaster. These include the story of a person who was inside the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory when it collapsed, a retired National Weather Service employee and a man whose decades-old tornado shelter saved his whole family and several others.

Clement, a storm chaser and Emmy Award-winning photojournalist, tracked the system, which killed nearly 90 people in total across four states, and followed it to Mayfield the night of the disaster.

His drone footage from the morning after the storm, which showed the “Mayfield: More than a Memory” mural before rising up to show the destruction in the historic downtown area, received millions of views on Twitter, and his coverage throughout the disaster was used by news networks around the country.

He says waiting for the sun to come up so he could see the extent of the damage is an experience he’ll never forget.

“I knew what I was gonna see in the morning, I knew it's gonna be just horrific. And I knew that first morning shot was going to shock the world,” Clement said.

The Climate Productions team is hopeful that their film will be acquired for distribution, though they hope to make the documentary available for streaming eventually.

The documentary will premiere at 3:45 EST Friday afternoon at the downtown Holiday Inn Express & Suites on the first day of Louisville’s International Festival of Film (LIFF). The filmmakers and some of the interview subjects will be on hand Friday to answer audience questions about the documentary.

Streaming options for 165 Miles: Catastrophe in Kentucky will be available for the duration of the virtual portion of the festival, which runs from Oct. 8-15. Tickets for the in-person and virtual screenings are $10.

This is the 14th edition of LIFF. This year’s festival features 122 films, including 22 features, 30 documentaries, 58 short films and 11 experimental/new media films to be screened at three different Louisville venues — the Muhammad Ali Center, the Kentucky Science Center and the downtown Holiday Inn Express & Suites.

More information, including a full festival slate and schedule, is available at the Louisville’s International Festival of Film website.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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