A few years ago my mother gave me a photograph of my grandfather, taken in about 1953. He is sitting with several fellow miners in the rock-walled tunnel of a copper mine, their black metal lunch boxes at their feet and the ore-cart tracks curving into the darkness beyond. I keep this photograph above my desk to remind myself what hard work is really all about when I’m whining over a deadline or wondering how to cut down a word count, but I never understood what that hard work consisted of until Thursday’s screening of Butte, America, the kickoff film of this weekend’s fifth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
Producer and director Pam Roberts and associate producer and co-writer Edwin Dobb tell the story of Butte not only with epic historical sweep (as befits a place where mere humans have wrought such immense changes to the surface of the earth) but also at a very personal level, foregrounding and respecting the reminiscences of the men and women who lived through the booms and busts of Montana’s legendary mining town.
The film’s historical scope runs approximately from the first discovery of copper under that famously rich hill up through the town’s virtual collapse in more recent decades. Roberts and Dobb have been at work for nearly a decade now, collecting interviews from the last and fast-disappearing generation with personal experience in Butte’s mines, as well as archival photographs, home movies old and new (including heartbreaking home-video footage of the Columbia Gardens fire), and the comments of historians and miners’ descendants. The film is a rich pastiche of still images, intimate close-ups of weathered interviewees, jittery old film clips, and haunting panoramic shots of the landscape of the town today.
For me, the film is most affecting in the dignity with which it treats the work of mining itself. It would be easy to frame a story in which Butte’s miners are mere exploited victims, and such a story could legitimately be pieced together from the reminiscences and historical information featured in this film. Butte was for example under federal occupation in the years after the 1917 Granite Mountain strike, with armed soldiers keeping watch on street corners, breaking up crowds with their bayonets and marching workers down into the mines at gunpoint. Living conditions throughout the town’s history were cramped and squalid. And the surrounding landscape was so industrial and toxic that — according to one woman interviewed in the film — if miners’ children wanted to experience something as basic and elemental as playing in the grass, they had to buy a ticket into the company-owned Columbia Gardens amusement park.
But while the film spends a good deal of time on facts like these, what struck me was the obvious pride that the interviewed miners show as they remember their working lives.
“I loved to work underground,” says one white-haired ex-miner, remembering his days in Butte’s mines. “I always classified digging as a blessing from God.”
At first, this is the kind of statement that is frankly hard to credit, at least for those of us who have had the luxury of choosing work that interests us and doing it in safety and comfort. But as the filmmakers present testimony after testimony of what went into hardrock mining, and the intense personal bonds that formed among the men doing it, it becomes easier to understand the strong emotions and attachments that could form around this unique way of life.
The work is a craft, after all, one that can be learned and refined over a lifetime, provided the work itself doesn’t cut that lifetime short. A hardrock miner working deep underground is responsible not just for scratching ore out of rock walls but for creating the tunnels themselves and ensuring that the conditions in them can support life: he’s a carpenter, plumber, metalworker, and navigator in a confusing warren of tunnels, over 10,000 miles of which are reputed to lie under Butte.
But all the expertise in the world isn’t enough to keep them safe from a stick of dynamite with a defective “fast fuse,” or from a weak spot in the rocks that might drop a tunnel on them. In the early twentieth century, according to a historian interviewed for the film, Butte’s churches were performing funeral services sometimes as often as weekly. A chilling vintage photograph shows a long line of mourners in their Sunday best, walking beside the street-car tracks, on their way to put another of their own under the ground that had killed him. And this grim scene was from a “normal” week; catastrophes like the 1917 Granite Mountain fire killed hundreds at a time.
“Everyone was always watching to see if their Dad was coming out the gate,” remembers one old-timer. Another recalls his superstition against saying the word “goodbye” when he left for work each morning.
As punishing and forbidding as so much of the mining life was (and still is, as attested by a haunting closing montage of photos from still-operating hardrock mines around the world), it is possible to feel envious of the strong community spirit that defined Butte until recently. It’s achingly sad — speaking as someone who’s been on something of a lifelong quest for a strong sense of community himself — to hear one of the film’s interview subjects observe that, as “Butte, America” died, this beautiful aspect of the town died with it.
“You don’t find that closeness in the community where I live now,” says a woman who grew up in Butte while the mines were still buzzing. “The neighborliness is gone.”
Associate producer and co-writer Edwin Dobb says it was just this element of community they wanted to explore, not just in the film’s subject matter but in how the film was made.
“We tried to involve the community in everything we did,” he says. “There was a lot of local support, individual hundred-dollar checks.”
Dobb chuckles ruefully that, seeing as how the film has been in the works for almost a decade now, some of those local supporters must be starting to wonder if it will ever come out. The film was only shown in rough cut on Thursday and still lacks its narration and final sound design. But the official premiere is firmly planned for later this year, in Butte, and we’ll tell you when just as soon as we find out.
I know I can’t wait to see the finished product.
Editor’s note: The official premiere of Butte, America will take place in Butte, not Missoula, as was previously reported.