“Film about Libby to be seen on PBS:
Main character in 2004 documentary is cancer victim”
By Donna Healy
August 25, 2007
Much has changed since two Missoula filmmakers produced “Libby, Montana,” a documentary on the asbestos contamination from the now-closed W.R. Grace Co. vermiculite mine.
A main character in the film, Les Skramstad, an activist and former mine worker, died in January from a rare lung cancer attributed to asbestos exposure.
The criminal lawsuit against Grace executives for conspiring to conceal the mine’s health risks had yet to be filed when the film was finished in 2004.
While the drama of the town’s struggle continues to occupy newspaper headlines, the basic elements of the story remain unchanged.
A national television audience will see the documentary “Libby, Montana,” on Tuesday on the PBS series “P.O.V.,” a show named for the abbreviation of the cinematic term “point of view.”
The national broadcast premiere is a coup for Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis, a pair of filmmakers who never went to film school.
“Among independent documentary makers, ‘P.O.V’ is kind of the top dog in terms of documentary broadcasts in the U.S.,” said Hawes-Davis, in a phone interview from Missoula.
He sees Libby’s story in terms of the American dream gone horribly wrong, with corporate executives, politicians, workers and residents caught up in the tragedy.
He and Carr, who are partners in High Plains Films, have collaborated on more than a dozen documentaries, often exploring complex and controversial environmental issues.
Hawes-Davis, who grew up in Jefferson City, Mo., wandered into filmmaking after getting his master’s in environmental studies from the University of Montana. In 1992, he finished his graduate thesis on the proposed expansion of a lead-mining district in the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri.
“When I finished my thesis, I had no idea what I was going to do,” Hawes-Davis said.
Then he watched the low-budget documentary “Undermining Yellowstone,” by a Missoula filmmaker, about a proposed gold mine on the border of Yellowstone National Park.
Instead of leaving the research for his thesis to gather dust on a library shelf, he turned his thesis into a video.
With a friend, he drove to Missouri. For three weeks, he camped out in a tent and slept on people’s floors while he shot the video footage. At the time, he had no camera or editing experience. The video camera was borrowed from a community-access television station.
“It was a super-VHS camcorder that regularly switched into regular VHS mode. It was about as bad as you could get,” he said.
The film, which he made for $1,200, was a money-losing venture.
“It had low production values. We had no good equipment, but it still had some impact,” he said. “By the second film, I was hooked.”
The video was used by mining opponents to galvanize support. The proposed expansion would have allowed mining in the watershed of the Current River, which is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, America’s first national riverway.
“It helped people visualize, ‘Oh, this is the place,’” Hawes-Davis said. “Where it was lacking in production values, hopefully, it had some merit in storytelling.”
The documentary was eventually shown on Arkansas public television, and Hawes-Davis realized that, while legislators probably don’t sit down to read 800-page environmental impact statements, they might be willing to watch a movie.
“Being able to create something like that, that made obvious connections with people, was empowering,” Hawes-Davis said.
He got to know Carr, who is also from Missouri, when they shared a ride back home for the holidays in the mid-1990s.
While Carr earned his master’s in environmental studies from UM, he created on a documentary about the proposed Seven-Up Pete cyanide heap-leach gold mine along the Blackfoot River east of Lincoln.
The pair began collaborating on low-budget videos while they both worked other jobs. By 1999, they were making a living as filmmakers. In addition to their independent work, they also do production work for nonprofit organizations.
Their fifth documentary feature, “Brave New West,” which will be finished this fall, profiles the publisher of a progressive paper in Moab, Utah. Another work in progress, “Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison!,” covers the history of human interaction with the bison.
In 2003, Hawes-Davis founded the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, a venue for showcasing top nonfiction productions. Their company, High Plains Films, hosts the festival, which is scheduled next for Feb. 14-20, 2008.
The idea to follow Libby’s story crystalized almost as soon as the story broke in 1999.
“Being in Missoula and being documentarians doing stories about those types of issues, it would have been hard not to think about doing it,” Hawes-Davis said.
A more difficult decision was when to stop filming.
“Obviously the story of Libby is going to continue for many, many years,” he said.
They decided to wrap up their filming when Libby was designated a Superfund site in 2002.
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