- An Injury to One
Last spring I returned to my hometown of Butte, Montana for a family memorial service. While there I had a chance to visit the two sites upon which one of the town's few struggling industries, tourism, depends. The first is the site that commemorates the Speculator Mining Disaster of 1917, in which 168 mostly immigrant miners were burned alive because the exits to the tunnels were illegally blocked off. The second is the Berkeley Pit, the open pit that was dug and mercilessly worked when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company switched production from shaft mining to strip extraction. Ultimately, a drilling error caused water to fill and incapacitate the pit, creating an unnatural, copper-colored "lake" filled with glittering, mineral-laced water so toxic that birds die as soon as they land on it. The water now has [End Page 85] the same P.H. levels as battery acid, making the "lake" the largest body of contaminated water in the country.
Butte, once a vibrant center of working-class cultural life and muscular unionism that supplied 10% of the world's copper, where the children of militant trade unionists now shop at Wal-Mart and drive to surrounding towns for work, is the focus of Travis Wilkerson's complex and challenging film. Although the film's ostensible subject is the murder in 1917 of IWW organizer Frank Little, who had come to Butte to agitate and help organize miners in the wake of the Speculator deaths, Little's individual story is told not to present him as a hero, but to anchor the bigger story that Wilkerson, who might thus be characterized as a Wobbly filmmaker, wants to tell. The bigger story is that of the century of human and environmental damage that was a consequence not just of company indifference to working-class life, but of vicious company and government repression of working-class organization and resistance to this indifference, in a town once known as "the Gibraltar of unionism".
The film is a documentary, but many viewers may be taken aback at first by how little it resembles the documentaries we have come to expect from public television. Wilkerson provides a stark visual chronology of the events that led up to the Speculator Disaster and subsequent mass strike over health and safety issues that crippled Butte for several months before Little's murder, and then maps out the evisceration of the miners' unions through the imposition of the various state and then federal "sedition acts" that followed. Relying on IWW documents and his own voiceover commentary, his style intentionally rejects the conventional documentary's claim to "objectivity," as well as any reliance on "talking head" scholarly commentary or first-person testimony by participants in the events portrayed. In this, his is the opposite of what might be called the "Ken Burns approach" that draws viewers into an emotional, rather than political, identification with particular individuals, often at the expense of their being able to form a broader sense of the social forces that were impacting on these individuals. Wilkerson's film, like Frank Little himself, is "100% IWW." It is openly partisan, making bold assertions about the collusion between Anaconda and the U.S. government in disabling Butte's unions in the name of "homeland security," and in highlighting the immediate and long-term impact of brutally exploitative capitalism on the bodies of Butte's working class. If Wilkerson has a predecessor, it would be Bertolt Brecht, who asserted in his "Short Organum" that no creative work could avoid taking a political stand, especially by claiming not to do so. Likewise, Brecht emphasized the construction of narrative forms that would be anti-empathetic, causing audiences to think about issues rather than [End Page 86] responding merely to the circumstances of individuals. Wilkerson does just this throughout the film. For example, there are several interludes in which "Songs of the Butte Miners" interrupt the chronology of the case being made against Anaconda. Rather than having the songs, such as the Wobbly classic. "We Have Fed You All for a...