Tag Archives: documentary

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

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When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

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Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

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Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

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Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

A Reply to Dan Blondeau

When I sat down to reply to a comment from Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine on my Mining Renaissance post, I found that I’d written what is, essentially, a new post. So I’m running my reply here instead of in the comments thread.

Here is Dan’s comment:

Louis and others commenting here – is there any way you would support mining anywhere? I highly doubt it. Large, long-life deposits are few and far between now. Smaller projects such as Eagle, Polymet and so on are becoming the typical scale of mining. Instead of just bashing the industry and focusing on events that happened decades ago, perhaps you could take a more positive and collaborative approach to your concerns. Thank you

Here’s my reply:

I take it that by “events that happened decades ago,” you are referring to the story told in my film 1913 Massacre. That story from what you correctly characterize as a bygone era of mining first drew me to the Upper Peninsula, and it would be dishonest or disingenuous to say that it doesn’t still color my thinking. But since completing that project I’ve tried to stay focused on what’s happening in the area now.

At the same time, the unresolved past and the present are not so easily kept apart. For example, the conversation after our screening of 1913 Massacre at the DeVos Art Museum last October went almost directly and without any prompting to the new mining up around Big Bay and across the Peninsula. I believe the film resonates with people in the UP (and in other parts of the country) not just because the immigrant experience it documents is the quintessential American experience, but also because the basic questions it raises are still very much alive today.

That aside, I am not sure why you read me as “bashing the industry” here. My post focused on sloppy and hopelessly compromised journalism. I don’t think of mining as something I would “support” or not support.  It would never occur to me to put it that way, and I’m not for or against mining per se. In some of my posts, especially those on Shefa Siegel’s work, I try to acknowledge mining’s crucial role in what Orwell calls “the metabolism of civilization”; and I’m trying to understand how bigger changes in the commodities markets and the global economic picture are driving the new mining around Lake Superior. But I also think it’s important to appreciate the real risks and the potential cost of copper and nickel mining operations in the Lake Superior watershed, and to question whether it really will create lasting prosperity for the UP or the Lake Superior region. Those are (for me) the big issues the new mining raises, and I think they are issues that any honest conversation about mining (or the development that mining brings) needs to take into account.

As I tried to suggest in my post, Kocazek just ignores them, and I wondered why she didn’t try to take them on – especially since she writes for a publication dedicated to water issues. And not just any publication: Circle of Blue, which was founded by J. Carl Ganter (who served as vice-chairman of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security) and which has ties to – it is a “non-profit affiliate” of – the prestigious Pacific Institute.

As for taking “a more positive and collaborative approach,” I am all for it, or at least I am all for genuine collaboration. I don’t really know what a “positive…approach” would entail in this case apart from boosterism. As I say, I don’t consider myself a mining booster or a mining basher, but an observer, still (and no doubt always) an outsider, despite my many trips to the UP, exploring a place and trying my best to document what’s happening there. I’m open to having my views challenged and being shown where I am wrong or where there’s a better way to talk about or do things. (And for that reason I appreciate you taking the time to comment here.) I don’t think there can be any collaboration unless each party is willing and able to listen and – this is important – ready to yield to the other. In other words, listening goes beyond making concessions to the other in conversation: it means doing things differently in response to the other’s demands. (This is a theme I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Power of Asking, and one that I come up against over and over again when I write about mining issues.)

Am I often critical of what mining companies are doing in the UP and around Lake Superior? Sure, and I am troubled, as well, by the almost hubristic level of confidence the mining industry places in technology and engineering, even in the face of disasters like the Bingham Canyon collapse; its worrisome record on environmental and human rights issues nearly everywhere in the world mining is done; and the power and distorting influence it exerts on politicians and public debate – in the UP and elsewhere.

I still think there’s plenty of opportunity for collaboration and dialogue. If I did not, I would just call it quits; but giving up on dialogue is tantamount to giving up on people. In the area of human rights, for instance, I believe there’s still opportunity for collaboration around the Ruggie principles (despite the doubts I’ve expressed about them) and – in the Lake Superior region – around the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Both frameworks (as well as the work done by the Lake Superior Binational Forum on Responsible Mining in the Lake Superior Basin) are decent places to start enumerating in a serious way the responsibilities and obligations that mining companies have in a region where human rights concerns and freshwater issues are intertwined.

In fact, I think genuine and ongoing collaboration on these efforts is essential, because I don’t think the mining industry can do it alone, or is the appropriate party to set the agenda here.

Labor Day, 2013: Will Big Mining Do Better This Time Around?

On Labor Day, I’ll be in New York City, so I won’t be able to see the television broadcast premiere of 1913 Massacre on Twin Cities Public Television. How many will tune in? How will the broadcast cut of the film look and play on TV? Above all, I wonder, what connections will the Labor Day TV audience draw between 1913 and 2013? My comments here run this holiday weekend on MinnPost.

Many people Ken and I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming 1913 Massacre urged us to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that had introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me to Calumet and the Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors.

But there were limits to their benevolence. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers – Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice “sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly-technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents; and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. Polymet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs – just 25% — will go to local communities. Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property. Overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

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Bulletproof Securities patrols Gogebic Taconite’s property in northern Wisconsin.

Did Werner Herzog Just Produce The “Red Asphalt” of Our Day?

Werner Herzog’s new documentary-style PSA against texting while driving, From One Second to the Next, is beautifully shot and edited. Its four stories, which revisit tragic accidents and ruined lives, are presented simply and compassionately, with an eye and an ear for telling little human details.

Still, I have to wonder how this film — which Herzog’s sponsor, AT&T, will distribute to “more than 40,000 high schools, as well as hundreds of safety organizations and government agencies” — will play with teen drivers. From One Second does not wag admonitory fingers and avoids the good-cop scare tactics of old California Highway Patrol road-safety movies like Red Asphalt or Wheels of Tragedy, but its emotional range is limited enough that after watching 3 of the 4 stories Herzog presents here I felt I had had enough of the same tones and colors.

More importantly, the film’s pacing and duration (it’s 35 minutes long) are not exactly suited to a generation that thinks even texts can be tl;dr. I have trouble imagining an auditorium or classroom full of sixteen year olds getting through it without — well, texting or tweeting or checking social media.

So it remains to be seen whether this beautiful and sometimes very moving document can also create an effective intervention. Herzog himself senses the difficulty, but he talks about the problem as a distant observer: “There’s a completely new culture out there,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m not a participant of texting and driving — or texting at all — but I see there’s something going on in civilization which is coming with great vehemence at us.”

I can’t help but be reminded here of the refain from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” written when Herzog was just 23 years old: “Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” But this isn’t just one generation griping about another, and Herzog is right to suggest that there’s much more at stake in all this than the hazards of texting while driving. It’s about the “new culture out there”, which is taking its toll on human life — a deadly and threatening “something” that’s “going on in civilization.” It’s coming at us, with great vehemence, bearing down on us.

Where it’s coming from and what it is Herzog doesn’t say, or at least the Associated Press does not report; but it’s precisely that “something” that From One Moment misses, and never asks us to confront or better understand. I am not so sure AT&T would have sponsored a film that did.

Public Television and Public Life – A Note from the Road

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

We’ve just completed a short tour of the Upper Peninsula, taking 1913 Massacre from Houghton to Ontonagon to Marquette. After each screening of the film, we take questions and comments from the audience. All sorts of things come up in those conversations. People see themselves or their own town in the Calumet story. They make connections between the past and the present, between what happened in Calumet to what’s happening right now in the UP, in Michigan and all around the country. In Ontonagon, one audience member came away from the film thinking about garment factories in Bangladesh; in Marquette, we talked about courage, resilience and how long it takes communities to recover from social catastrophe, among other things. We learn something new with every conversation.

Though the questions, insights and topics may vary, the thing that most impresses me about all these Q&A sessions — no matter the size of the audience or the setting — is the most easily overlooked: the gathering of the audience and the shared experience of seeing the film, together, creates an opportunity for public conversation.

That’s why I’m always a little thrown when someone raises his hand in one of these public gatherings to ask whether we’ve approached PBS with our film or whether 1913 Massacre will air on public television. There are other versions of the same question. Will the film be at Sundance? Will it be on HBO? Wouldn’t it lend itself to feature film treatment? Have we approached Steven Speilberg or — name your favorite Hollywood mogul or celebrity. But the PBS question is the one we get most frequently.

The simple answer is, of course we approached PBS, Independent Lens, POV, and so on, repeatedly, for funding and grants while working on the film; and of course we are still making efforts to bring the film to wider audiences. PBS, or some part of the public broadcasting system, might offer an opportunity to do that.

That, at least, is an answer that gets us past talking about the movie business and the business prospects of our film and back to the film itself and the experience of the film we all just shared.

I realize that the PBS question and others like it show appreciation and support for the film: it’s a way of wishing us success, or a way of saying that other people, friends, family, lots of people, millions of PBS viewers should see our film. They should, with any luck they will, and it’s good to hear others hope they do.

At the same time it’s worth asking why the PBS question comes up so often, and more importantly why the question seems odd and entirely out of place at a public gathering and in a public forum. Would a PBS broadcast give our film a seal of approval it lacks? Would an Oscar? Would Steven Speilberg? Maybe, but why should any of that matter right now? We’re not approaching Speilberg: we’re approaching you. What do you say? What do others in the room have to say? Why look elsewhere? Why wait for permission? What about the approval 1913 Massacre already received, just now, right here in this room? What about the experience we all just shared? Surely we haven’t exhausted that — and surely that counts for something, for much more.

We’re here together, right now, in this room. Let’s appreciate and own it, and make the most of the opportunity we have. Let’s forget about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and every other kind of corporate gatekeeper. Let’s not await a word from our sponsor or even admit them into the room. Let’s not diminish the present moment and our experience — a public experience, an experience of being together, in public. Let’s not look for validation or value beyond this room: we have it all, right here.

You see where this is heading. There are lessons in all this about the power people and communities have and the power we surrender, every day and for no good reason, to outside authorities, influencers and exploiters — to powerful institutions, brand names, celebrities, big money. These gatherings in small towns, in classrooms, halls and clubs, in local theaters and public libraries may look modest, but they give us a chance to exercise our habit for democracy.

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People gather in the Community Room at the Peter White Library in Marquette for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

That’s why, in the end, television broadcast can’t hold a candle to public screenings like the ones we’ve had and will continue to have. Television is not just a poor substitute for community gatherings and public life. It pulls us away from those things and from each other. Watching television is a retreat from public gathering — a withdrawal into the privacy of one’s own. In this sense, “public television” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

There’s an aesthetic dimension to this as well. Our film, all film, plays best on a big screen, with a live audience. People laugh and cry together, some gasp, some cough (somebody always coughs), others sigh, shift in their seats. Applause brings everyone together at the end. (Booing and jeering would do the trick, too, but with 1913 Massacre we’ve so far been spared that experience.) These emotions, actions and reactions are an under-appreciated but essential part of the motion, or kinesis, of the cinematic experience. Films come alive — that’s the right word, alive — when people gather to see them; and when people share in public conversation what they’ve seen, they have a special chance to see each other, anew, on the other side of a new experience.

A woman in the audience in Houghton seemed to understand all this when she rose from her seat and exclaimed: “this film should be shown in every small town across the country!” If only we could make that happen.

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.

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Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.

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It’s 1913 Again in Michigan

Crossposted from 1913massacre.com

I’ve run across a few people drawing connections between the Italian Hall disaster and the school shooting yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut (e.g., here). Maybe listening to Woody’s song helps people register Newtown’s loss, or the horror of Newtown helps us understand a little better what it must have been like for the Italian Hall parents and the Calumet community as a whole in 1913. But beyond that I don’t think there’s a very meaningful connection to be made.

It is, however, worth reflecting on what happened in Calumet in December of 1913 and what’s happening in Michigan right now. This week, the Michigan legislature — without allowing much debate or deliberation, and over the protests of thousands — handed Governor Rick Snyder a bill making Michigan a “right to work” state. They added insult to injury a couple of days later when they passed Emergency Manager Legislation that Michigan voters had rejected on November 6th. This one-two punch is supposed to remedy Michigan’s economic woes and get the state back on the road to recovery. It looks more like a last-minute power grab before the next legislature is seated, enabled by another big-money subversion of democratic process.

Indeed, a provocative piece by labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein published last week cast the “right to work” legislation in Michigan as part of a “coup.” Lichtenstein sees here “a serious defeat not only for the unions but for the very idea of social solidarity.”

this conflict is about something far bigger — the meaning of solidarity, a way of feeling and thinking about the world of work that is the basis not just of the union idea, but of a humane cooperative society.

I am not entirely persuaded by Lichtenstein’s argument: I just don’t think the “idea of social solidarity” goes down in “defeat” so easily.

It was under attack in Calumet in 1913. The Christmas party at the Hall was itself an exhibition of solidarity, six months into a brutal strike. And after the Christmas Eve tragedy, the town came together, again, to mourn. They grieved, but they didn’t give up, even after they lost their bid to unionize and the strike was over. As Joe Krainatz says in our film, “They did go on. They did survive. They raised their families. They went to work in the mines again.” And what’s most remarkable is that they rebuilt their community; their feeling of solidarity and shared humanity survived even the closing of the mines and the ruin that came in its wake.

Maybe the lesson of Calumet is that human solidarity runs deep. Money and power have never really won out over it. So far, I haven’t seen any white flags waving in Michigan.

Bringing 1913 Massacre Back to Calumet

Cross posted from my blog at 1913massacre.com

I still haven’t managed to find out exactly what George Stoney said about bringing a documentary film back to the place where it was shot, but Deanna Kamiel was kind enough to share her notes on remarks Stoney made on the topic at the “Tribute to George Stoney” in October of 2008 at the IFC Center.

On that occasion, Stoney showed an excerpt from Uprising of ‘34, and talked about some of the responses that the film’s subjects – the people in the film – had when he showed it to them. “It is right as a filmmaker,” Kamiel reports Stoney as having said on that occasion, “that you should be able to bring your film back to your subject.”

“Right”: that word from Deanna’s notes intrigues me most. It puts the emphasis on the filmmakers’ relationship with the subject and the moral onus on the filmmaker. It’s less about truth-telling — whatever that means when talking about documentary film — than it is about respect. It seems almost to suggest that bringing a film back to the people it represents re-establishes some order (some “right relationship”) that filmmaking can too often disrupt. Films are not, in this way of thinking, a matter of “taking” someone’s picture, but instead of establishing a relationship in which you are able to bring the film back to them – giving back, not just taking. The film could be a gift, just a way of restoring the moving image to its subject.

So today we flew to the Upper Peninsula, to bring our film, 1913 Massacre, back to its subject – the town of Calumet, Michigan. We are showing the film tomorrow at the Calumet Theatre and then again on Saturday. Many of the people who appear in our film will be there. And I am wondering about how this exchange will work. I am not expecting anything like a sense of closure or resolution. I am not sure what to expect.

As we walked around the town today it felt so eerily familiar, and somehow both real and imagined, actual and remembered, a story and a place, filled with the sights and voices and the sounds that are in our film (the sign outside Bill’s Electrical squeaking as it sways, the wind coming off the lake that so often made recording sound difficult, the rumble of an old truck making its way down Fifth Street). It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that, for me at least, the place now feels a little haunted by the film we shot here.

I’m ready to admit that this might just be the confusion of our first day in town, and I’m wondering how we and, more importantly, 1913 Massacre will be received in the days to come. I suppose we will find out if we got it right, or at least if some people think we got some things right.

Updates on the Calumet screenings of 1913 Massacre here and here.

Same song, different verse – Bill Moyers on Woody Guthrie, Right Now

Cross-posted from my blog over at 1913massacre.com:

In the most recent essay for his new “On Democracy” series, Bill Moyers picks up on the news that the George Kaiser Family Foundation has acquired the Woody Guthrie Archives for 3 million dollars. Plans to open a new center in Tulsa are already underway. Woody’s papers, drawings and things will be returning to Oklahoma. The irony is not lost on Moyers:

What he wrote and sang about caused the oil potentates and preachers who ran Oklahoma to consider him radical and disreputable. For many years he was the state’s prodigal son, but times change, and that’s the big news. Woody Guthrie has been rediscovered, even though Oklahoma’s more conservative than ever – one of the reddest of our red states with a governor who’s a favorite of the Tea Party.

Times change, and the scene may change; the cast of characters remains essentially the same. In 1913 Massacre, the Oklahoma oil barons and their patsy preachers play the parts of Michigan mining captains, Boston stockholders and the thugs they hire to do their dirty work.

Woody saw right through their change of costume. He knew that the man who robs you with a six-gun is likely to be more honest than the man who uses a fountain pen. In Oklahoma, in Michigan, in California, all around the country, he sang about the beauty of ordinary people whose undoing he witnessed. And the simple message at the heart of his songs is just as radical today as it ever was.

You just have to listen.

Moyers discovers it in This Land Is Your Land:

This land is mostly owned not by you and me but by the winner-take-all super rich who have bought up open spaces, built mega-mansions, turned vast acres into private vistas, and distanced themselves as far as they can from the common lot of working people – the people Woody wrote and sang about.

So in the video essay he produced about Woody Guthrie and the prospects for democracy in America now, Moyers might as well be describing Calumet in 1913 or Tom Joad’s California: “gross inequality,” he says, is “destroying us from within”. The question is what we’re going to do about it, this time.

The End of the Three Mile Picture Show

With the very kind assistance of Kathleen Dow at the University of Michigan Library’s Transportation History Collection, I’ve gained new clarity since my last post about the fate of The Three Mile Picture Show, the 1915 film documenting H.C. Ostermann’s transcontinental journey on the Lincoln Highway.

In October of 1957, F. E. Sheldon, Head Film Librarian at Walt Disney Productions, wrote to Leo Natanson, Librarian at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, to request “the Lincoln Highway material.” Walt Disney Productions was making a film called – at the time – The American Highway.

The film would air six months later, on May 14th, 1958, under a different title: Magic Highway, USA.

That film, of course, is still extant, and it includes a few scenes from the Ostermann film; like most early footage in Magic Highway, USA, the Lincoln Highway material is colored and sepia-tinted, and comes in for comic treatment. The past in Magic Highway, USA is a series of blunders and advances, comical mishaps and lucky accidents, a happy but confused world of exploration and invention, a time when things looked odd and ran at different speeds to funny music.

But the film had a serious intent. Magic Highway, USA celebrated “the freedom of the American road,” and connected the highway to the American “pursuit of happiness.” It also looked ahead, to the future. As Sheldon explained to Natanson,”because of the congestion of today’s highways, we need planning, preparation, and equipment well in advance to build the proposed dream highways of the future.” Cartoon segments show a future of atomic reactors tunneling through mountains, elevator parking lots built around office buildings, and so on. This is the dream (though looking at it now, it seems a nightmare); the archival motion-picture footage describes the comic prelude.

Walt Disney Productions offered and the University accepted two dollars “per screen foot for material used in our film, with a guarantee of at least fifty feet.” One hundred dollars, total: this was in lieu of screen credit, which Natanson twice requested – apprehensively, one imagines; he was twice refused.

Natanson and staff packed the film reels in a large case, declared the value of The Three Mile Picture Show at one-thousand dollars, and shipped it Express Collect to Disney. On October 30th, Sheldon wired with this news:

four reels of film… have deteriorated to powder and bubbled condition. Extreme explosion or fire hazard. Strongly suggest you grant permission to destroy this material here or will return immediately at your responsibility. Four small rolls of negative in can appear to be alright.

On that same day, Natanson wired back: “You may destroy runined [sic] film.” And so they did.

Reading the correspondence, I see no reason to suspect anything sinister or even a lack of effort to save the film. The Three Mile Picture Show had become hazmat. Sheldon cited Burbank fire laws, prohibiting “the transportation of this type of material over city streets by waste film collectors unless it is immersed in a barrel of water.” Even the notes packed with the film had been so “contaminated” that the paper on which they were printed was “poisonous to breathe.” “It is regrettable,” writes Sheldon, in a December 13th letter, “that time had taken its toll of the four rolls that had to be destroyed. I feel there must have been valuable historical material in these rolls, but their decomposed condition made it impossible to examine.”

As for the small rolls of negative that remained, Sheldon recommended duplicating them immediately; their “rate of decomposition may be accelerated,” he feared, by exposure to the other film.

On December 18, 1957, that negative film made its way back to the University via Railway Express. 1000 feet of negative was all that was left of the original three miles of motion picture film from 1915. Natanson informs Sheldon he has no facilities available on campus for making duplicates, and wonders “if you people could do this for us or could recommend someone.” Sheldon helpfully suggests Jam Handy in Detroit, and offers to loan the University the 900-foot fine grain Disney made from the Transportation Institute’s negative rolls.

A duplicate negative and print at the going rate (in Sheldon’s estimate) of 20 cents per foot would have cost the Transportation Institute 80 dollars more than it had collected from Disney for the footage used in Magic Highway, USA. Here the correspondence trails off. Perhaps Natanson was confused about what to do, or just decided to cut his losses.