Travis Wilkerson's brave and beautiful documentary does more than tell a heartbreaking story. In its account of a key American labor struggle, it demonstrates the power of shaping official, received history by dismantling its very syntax.
The film recounts the emergence of Butte, Montana, as a world center of copper mining in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and as a flashpoint in the struggle between workers and rapacious capitalist bosses. We learn of the takeover of Butte by mining interests, and their contempt and violence toward workers and unions. But the film also illustrates the solidarity of workers who organized against the bosses, having learned the hard way about laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, what might be a history of historical "progress" is compelled to account for the mechanics and human costs of class struggle. Wilkerson's austere technique, combining stark images with music, intertitles and narration, radically responds to the paucity of contemporaneous documentary accounts, performing a powerful act of historical archaeology and reclaiming for the working class its status as a subject, not a predicate or a footnote, of historical events. Wilkerson makes these ghostly historical agents palpable and vocal, asserting the relevance of their story to struggles of today and tomorrow.