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Exceptional doc reveals the true Butte

History is funny. Much has been made—and rightly so—of the historic nature of the Milltown Dam removal and the soon-to-be-natural reunion of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. Impending work on the upper Clark Fork corridor, though not nearly as sexy as the disembowelment of a giant rock-and-timber edifice, now has stage two of the Superfund cleanup in the news.

click to enlarge This portrait of Butte miners is one of numerous archival photos in Pam Roberts’ documentary, Butte, America. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LIVA FAMILY
  • Photo courtesy of the Liva family
  • This portrait of Butte miners is one of numerous archival photos in Pam Roberts’ documentary, Butte, America.

But as federal and state officials pour hundreds of million of dollars and countless man-hours into scraping a century's worth of poisoned history from the banks and bottom of the Clark Fork, it seems that little has been recently made of the contamination's source—the hard rock mining city that made all this new history necessary. But thanks to a documentary film with a history nearly one-tenth as long as it subject's, Butte is finally getting its due. And man, what a due it is.

In both content and form, Butte, America is nothing short of a revelation. Modern Butte is pocked with massive and mysterious landmarks to its past—the 90-foot virgin statue riding the high spine of the Continental Divide, gazing over the city in benediction; the festering Berkley Pit, fed insatiably by an unseen toxic underground; the largely shuttered old town business district—and Pamela Roberts' powerhouse of a documentary brings them all to life in a way that will, if justice serves, change the way this remarkable city is perceived both here in Montana and the world at large.

I normally shy from revealing much of a movie's substantive content points, but Butte, America tells its story so well that its must-see status will in no way be diminished by such a listing. There is, of course, the scope of mining operations themselves. There are hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath the city, and the profit from the metals extracted there made the Anaconda Company the fourth largest in the United States in 1914. A nifty piece of filmmaking has the camera in a panoramic sweep over what must be painstakingly assembled historic photos of the city, with a white arrow pointing to the entrances of the various mines under a voiceover that lists their names. This is powerful stuff, both for the sheer number of mines and the simplicity in which that information is delivered.

The labor needs of the mines brought immigrants—dominated by the Irish, who left an indelible stamp on the culture of the city—in droves, driving a population increase that saw Butte hit well over 40,000 residents during WWI. Roberts, who produced and directed, works hard to animate these hard-living men and their tough families and communities, and that work pays off in a big way.

She mixes living portraits of men who had been there (one of them, describing the surprisingly deep affinity many miners held for their work, says in his interview, "I always classified digging as a blessing from God") with a stunning assemblage of photographs, film and home video footage, and written accounts of life in Butte. The complexity of the city is revealed by the tidbit that some Butte residents referred to their home as "Butte, America" because it was an anomaly in the West: a diverse, bustling place that had much more in common with the industrial centers of the East (Butte has been called the "Pittsburgh of the West") than with any of its neighboring communities.

While a steady stream of vaudeville acts and the largest brothel in the West testify to Butte's famed proclivity for fun and, at least in part, give some valuable depth to the city's continued embracement of St. Patrick's Day, Roberts does not dwell long on the racier parts of Butte's history.

There is much story to be told in the forces that shaped Butte's community, and this is where Butte, America really shines. From a brief but notable summary of the struggle for dominance among the Copper Kings, to a detailed and riveting account of the savage wars between mining companies and labor unions, to a finely woven portrait of a group of people who stood united against the financial interests that ruled nearly every aspect of their official lives, Butte, America is a full-scale immersion into a city with the right to call its story a truly unique one.

Butte's decline is documented here as well, though not with the same attention to detail paid its turn-of the-century heyday. It's numbing, really: A more profitable mine in Chile reduces Butte's relevance as the city's rich ore stores diminish; new technology results in an open pit that consumes huge chunks of town (a great voiceover line reads in part "the Anaconda Company was swallowing the city it had built"); a string of arson fires in the 1970s put a fiery exclamation to a city that had hit rock bottom.

Near the end of the film we hear the story of how a laid-off group of mine workers decided to use their skills to construct a symbol of hope and virtue above a city that had been abused beyond its breaking point. But even if Our Lady of the Rockies' posture is one of admonition more than benediction, the city under her gaze clearly deserves the immortality afforded it by Butte, America.

Butte, America screens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, Sept. 11, at 7 PM. $10/$15 includes post-screening reception at the Red Bird.

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