by John Hess
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, p. 43
A prosperous mill town of more than 25,000 in the late 1930s, Braddock, Pennsylvania, has dwindled to less than 6,000 people. Tony Buba, a local filmmaker, has documented various aspects of that decline in a number of quite short films and finally in this 29-minute film. He emphasizes the people of Braddock, their stories, their views, their lives. All segments of society appear in the film: old and young, black and white, men and women, workers and businessmen.
The decline has hurt everyone: has bitterly disappointed the oldsters who built up the town, has broken up families as younger people move away in search of work, and has robbed the very young of hope. Although the film is very much rooted in its place, the process it describes is happening in many small to mid-sized towns all over the Northeast and Midwest as the so-called smokestack industries close up or move away. The film sharpens our awareness of this process, helps us sympathize with the people who live in these towns, and encourages us to extend solidarity fo them. And people could effectively use the film, accompanied by an informed speaker, at fundraisers and educational events.
VOICES OF A STEELTOWN is personal, warm, yet elegiac. It shows how the town's decline has affected its people. After the poverty of the depression, Braddock became the commercial center for a large area south of Pittsburgh. But then, beginning in the 1950s, it declined to a decrepit, faded shadow of its former self. Buba, combining typical documentary techniques (interviews, still images, newsreel footage) and a rougher home movie style of storytelling, comes up with inventive and often funny ways of presenting things. Buba does not rely on experts; all the speakers are ordinary residents of Braddock. The interviews are informal, and take place in settings familiar to the people: a dentist in his office, some businessmen in their stores, some women on sidewalk benches, and some young people in a bar. The filmmaker has approached people on their own terrain to investigate how they feel about their town's decline.
The film opens on the image of a battered colonial-style sign proclaiming Braddock the "valley's greatest shopping center." Steve Pellegrino's mournful piano music accompanies this image, which slowly fades to dark city- and factory-scapes. The camera pans right, ending on a tower on which someone has affixed a Christmas tree. Then we see a small working class living room with a Christmas card-decorated television set. A TV announcer tells us that U.S. Steel has just shut down its Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, putting 1,000 out of work. These opening images are filled with expressive contrasts that sum up much of Braddock's story. The holiday layoffs make a bad situation even more painful.
Buba takes us through the growth and decline of the shopping area. First, old newspaper advertisements indicate the great number of shops in the area and then later newspaper ads announce the closeout sales. To show the decline of education in the area, Buba lets a group of young black children show him around the abandoned high school building. He juxtaposes this amusing tour of what has now become the kids' secret playground, with news clippings of the great football teams Braddock used to have.
Another remnant of the past is the town's great library with music hall and swimming pool, which Andrew Carnegie, the 19th century robber baron, had built in the late 1880s. Newsreel footage shows Carnegie in Braddock for the 25th anniversary celebration of the building in 1914. But it closed in 1974, and now the local historical society is struggling to preserve and reopen it. As we hear people talk about the building, we realize how much of a community center it used to be. Its passing symbolizes the death of the community. Several people comment on this change since most now feel they have to look out for themselves.
THE LOSS OF COMMUNITY
The loss of community is Buba's real story, and he creates a very strong sense of its decline and what that means to people. Early in the film he introduces himself and his family. His father was born there and his mother was born in Italy. Through a series of family pictures he shows the family's transformation from farmers to mill workers. His father and uncle stand in a parking lot that used to be the family farm, explaining where the house and barn were and reminiscing about the good old days.
This kind of scene has been repeated many times in regional films. But Buba, opting for a home movie aesthetic, lets his relatives carry on much longer than most filmmakers would. They joke around and talk about old times. Awkward silences and exchanges of knowing looks indicate a sadness or, perhaps, a bitterness that lies unarticulated below the surface. Like the tour through the high school building by the kids, this scene says much more about the people in Braddock now than about the past. It is about people who, unable to comprehend what is happening to their lives, are simply doing the best they can to survive with dignity.
Although the main steel mill has just recently closed, the town's decline began in the late 1950s. Exactly why this happened and happened then is not made clear in the film. Various people blame it on the politicians, on the mobility of the automobile that let the middle class move out to the suburbs, on businessmen who bled the town while putting nothing back into it, on the federal government that made but didn't keep many promises to the city. Some blame the city's demise on the racial environment (i.e., more blacks moving into the city's center), while other comments show that Braddock always had a black population, which, in the past, used to feel part of the community.
Explaining the decline of U.S. smokestack industries is not a simple matter and certainly not in a short film. But by foregoing any commentary, spoken or otherwise, Buba forgoes the opportunity to clarify what happened. He does not choose among the people's explanations or appear to favor any individuals in the film. He makes no effort to offer his own explanation of what happened or what might be done. He consistently remains dependent on what his subjects say. The result reflects their confusion. People have their various theories, but there is no way for us, the viewers, to assess these theories. Unless we have studied the plant closing issue, we end up as confused as the inhabitants of Braddock.
NEW WORKING CLASS IMAGE
In the 1970's films about the working class, the typical image was of the labor or community militant (including feminist, black, lesbian, and gay male communities) who spoke articulately about her/his struggle (past or present). These people were usually members of political or community organizations (acknowledged or not) and had clear solutions or programs to present. False consciousness, at least from the filmmakers' point of view, was not permitted. In some ways these militants were offered as antidotes to and models for most working class people. Often, though, the solutions and programs these people offered were quite unrealistic and inappropriate to most people's circumstances.
However useful these films were in some contexts, they also contained a lot of idealism and wishful thinking. This sort of thing is a lot harder to sustain in the 1980s, and it seems to me that filmmakers more recently have been trying to present a less idealized image of working class life. Yet I don't feel that I learned any more about the confused people in STEELTOWN as people than I did about the militant miners in HARLAN COUNTY, USA.
Radical media is about change — how people come to understand more about their world and begin those steps needed to change it for the better. Those steps don't have to be major ones. In fact much community, small group film and video making is about the small changes that take place in people's personal lives as they come to grips with poverty and exploitation: whether in Nicaragua or in Nebraska.
I know that in the Mon Valley near Pittsburgh there is a very active resistance movement against plant closings and for more aid to the people left behind. While I don't expect Buba to make a militant tract about it, I do want to know about the personal lives of the people in and around that struggle. Why do some people speak out and act while others don't? How do family support systems work under these conditions? How have the unions become involved in personal support work?
Watching VOICES FROM A STEELTOWN (the title indicating a kind of generic response to the decline) doesn't help me understand where the Mon Valley activism comes from or could come from. I see warmth and courage, but not the emotional or political growth and understanding underlying the activism I read about. I end up pitying these people and siding with the rootless young people who want to leave in search of work rather than fighting to rebuild their community. Yet I also admire Buba for staying at home to record the decline; I appreciate his deep feeling for the people he grew up with; I hope he finds some progressive growth and change to record as well.
VOICES FROM A STEELTOWN (1984) is distributed by New Day Films, 22 Riverview Drive, Wayne, NJ, 07470-3191/ (201) 633-0212.