LIBBY, MONTANA
116 minutes, 2007, DVCAM

“Documentary on Libby Coming to Myrna Loy”
Helena Independent Record, February 11, 2005
By Martin J. Kidston

Photo by Eliza Wiley IR Staff - Film programer for the Myrna Loy Center, Les Benedict, said being in between events featured in their auditorium made the timing of the documentary titled ‘Libby, Montana’ just right.

It took three years to record 120 hours of video, sort through 80 hours of stock footage, and trim it all down into a two-hour documentary, but the guys at High Plains Films, based in Missoula, have finished the task.

This weekend, the result of their work, a film titled “Libby, Montana,” will make its Helena debut at the Myrna Loy, giving audiences an inside look at the small town where tragedy and allegations of deceit made international headlines.

Asbestos contamination in Libby was brought to the nation’s attention in 1999 after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer linked W.R Grace’s vermiculite mine to the deaths of nearly 200 people and the illness of hundreds more.

The EPA has since declared Libby and the surrounding area a Superfund site, and just this week, seven current and former executives with W.R. Grace were indicted for concealing information about the health effects of their mining operations in the small Montana town.

“We’d been making environmental documentaries for over a decade,” Doug Hawes-Davis, the film’s co-director, said in a phone interview this week. “We heard the story when it broke. It was right in our own backyard. We were blown away.”

Over the next few months, the news would only get worse. Hawes-Davis and co-director, Drury Carr, made a command decision to investigate and film the process, no matter how long it took to unfold.

“We knew from the beginning it wasn’t something that would be solved overnight,” Hawes-Davis said. “We felt it would be a worthwhile document to have in movie format to show how everything played out.”

Gaining the trust of Libby’s residents was a challenge, Hawes-Davis admits. The town had seen dozens of media outlets swoop in for a juicy story, then leave the moment they had it.

“The people were really tired of the media,” Hawes-Davis said. “I know that Carr made some friends, and I met a number of people during the production. They saw that we were in it for the long haul.”

W.R. Grace, which enjoyed $140 million in after-tax profits from its Libby mining operations, according to the indictment, declined to comment for the production.

So the two filmmakers began scrambling for lost footage. Their efforts paid off, as did their burgeoning relationship with Libby’s residents.

They uncovered nearly 80 hours of archival film, including rodeo footage from the 1940s and a parade shot in the 1960s. They found footage of the mining site, oxygen equipment, and three years of public hearings.

“We had hours and hours of archival footage, from home movies to depositions,” Hawes-Davis said. “There’s no question this was a big project. But the more time you can take, the better the film is going to be, no matter what the subject is.”

In the early 1990s, Hawes-Davis and Carr were students at the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program.

As graduation approached and as trepidation grew over writing their thesis they decided to take a different approach and produce a documentary film.

Hawes-Davis created “The Element of Doom,” a film about a mining company’s plan to develop one of the last wild areas in the Midwest.

Carr wasn’t far behind in his own endeavor. He followed with the documentary, “Mining Seven-Up Pete,” which looks at the mine still being proposed for the Blackfoot River just east of Lincoln.

Both filmmakers agree they wanted to make movies that mattered.

“I’d like to hope that we get a little better each time,” Hawes-Davis said. “This last film was a big project and I’m quite proud of it. Eking out the meat of the story was a tremendous job. Each project you do, you reinvent yourself.”

Hawes-Davis said he’s been in contact with PBS and hopes “Libby, Montana,” will see a coast-to-coast broadcast.

“With everything happening around the issue right now, it would be nice to secure a national audience,” he said.

Les Benedict, film programmer for the Myrna Loy, said the movie is both powerful and disturbing.

“It’s quite a good, long look at the issue,” Benedict said. “It’s just a scary thing how it went on for so long.”