“In High Plains Films’ latest documentary, this small, Montana town sees itself one more time”
by Jed Gottlieb,
Montana Journalism Review, Summer 2004
The Dome Theater’s pastel blue and art deco stands out against the gray and cold of Wednesday morning’s Mineral Avenue. Libby’s old main street whose heyday began to fade decades ago also looks gray and cold.
Other than the theater and its chromatic marquee, the buildings are unhappy stone and dull stucco. The sidewalks are almost empty and traffic is slow.
The Dome theater’s marquee announces tonight’s film: LIBBY, MONTANA. a High Plains film. Free.
LIBBY, MONTANA the work of Dru Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis of the Missoula-based High Plains Films is the latest piece of journalism to shine light on the town’s tragedy and is the result of months of rolling tape over the last three years in Libby.
In the late 1990s the town became according to the Environmental Protection Agency the site of the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history. Over four decades, the W.R. Grace Corporation poisoned residents and the environment with deadly asbestos fibers, causing asbestosis for more than 1,000 residents. So far, more than 200 are dead from working at the mine, or washing miners’ dusty coveralls, or playing “King of the Mountain” on tailings piles next to the Little League baseball diamond.
The posters for Thursday’s movies - Big Fish and The Butterfly Effect - are still up. To find the closest Libby, Montana poster, go across the street and two blocks west to the town’s EPA field office. In the office window hangs a small poster taped up slightly crooked, one-third of it bent back and caught behind a blind. It features an old man with his back to the camera. He’s slouching, turned slightly to the right and staring at a field of crosses commemorating those who died from Grace’s asbestos contamination.
The single employee in the officesite manager Courtney Zamoradoesn’t know that the poster is for the movie. She’s seen the Dome’s marquee but hasn’t put the two together yet. Zamora is a minor character in the film, mostly seen in the background of shots featuring combative EPA meetings and clean-up scenes with men in hazmat suits.
Filmmakers Carr and Hawes-Davis interviewed Zamora along with a half dozen of her peers. Zamora remembers the filmmakers only vaguelythere have been so many journalists and filmmakers she’s talked with.
While Zamora doesn’t remember much about Carr and Hawes-Davis, many do remember the filmmakers. The two stood out in Libby: Carr, short, compact with scraggly beard. Hawes-Davis, tall, lanky, clean shaven but with a long ponytail. Yes, their cameras gave them away, but even without their forty pounds of equipment, they’d be picked out as not-from-around-these-parts. One resident, asbestosis victim Les Skramstad, describes them as Missoula-looking: grungy, granola, young. George Bauer, Bob Dedrick and the crowd at the Deluxe barber shop saw the same thing Skramstad did when the pair walked into the shop for the first time three-years ago.
“I knew they weren’t coming in for a haircut,” says Bauer.
The far wall of the Deluxe is covered in newsprint. Most of the clippings are from local high school sports stories. But entirely separate from the stories is a poster for Libby. Next to the poster are an Indian dream catcher and two photographs of the 200 white, wooden crosses.
Both Bauer and Dedrick have asbestosis and it’s Dedrick’s hunching, defeated back that’s featured on the film’s poster.
“I hope [the film] does well,” he says. “I like the guys. I wish that they could get this on the national networks and get this out there.”
After years of local concern over the mine, the EPA and dozens of journalistsTV and newspaper reporters, book authors and documentary makersdescended on the town in 1999. Dedrick has nearly a complete library of the newspaper stories and newscasts. He has a copy of Dust to Dustthe first documentary made about the town’s troublesand two of the three books published in the last four years. He has videotapes of 20/20 and 60 Minutes. And he thinks that every journalist who’s come up has done a good job. Just reporting about the problem, just listening to the people, he says.
At tonight’s showing at the Dome, Skramstad and his wife, Norita, are the first townspeople to arrive. A moment before the couple left for the Dome, the governor called them. Skramstad had spent three hours before the film calling a half dozen Montana politicians, including Senator Conrad Burns, Max Baucus and Martz. None could come. Martz was the only one who returned Skramstad’scall in person. She was polite, apologetic and quick: She couldn’t make tonight or tomorrow because she would be on the road, but she asked Skramstad to inquire about a copy of the film for her. Martz said she wants to see it.
But a host of other elected officials and prominent Libby citizens don’t want to see it. Grace’s lone representative in town says he has a business meeting. The mayor says he knows the story already. Others can’t find the time or can’t find babysitters. But even without those staying away, by 6:30 there’s a steady flow of people entering the theater. Dedrick and Bauer from the Deluxe arrive. So does Gayla Benefield, an advocate featured in the film. More than two dozen members of Benefield’s family has been diagnosed with asbestosis and the disease killed both her father and mother.
In the lobby, there’s no discussion of the film or its subject. Instead, serious themes like the governor’s race, the reconstruction of Highway 2 and the labor demonstrators outside on Mineral Avenue dominate the animated assemblythe union is upset over the wage cuts of workers contracted by the EPA to remove asbestos contamination from several Libby homes.
As the mayor is fond of saying, this town knows its story. But the 400 here tonight are attracted to another retelling. They want to see what the filmmakers missed or included, how they made decisions or how they spun the watershed moments.
Here, the filmmakers can’t cheat. Even if they know more than the townspeople about certain twists in the tale, they are still outsiders. The biography that consumed them for four years will have a sort of closure tonight, and it may be months, years, until they returnif they ever return. For the 400 about to watch themselves, this isn’t a final word, but another page to turn.
Carr and Hawes-Davis stand and walk to the front of the room. There’s a hush and the two thank everyone for coming and explain that there will be a short Q & A after the film. Then Carr adds: “We made as honest a film as we thought we could make.” The two make their way back up the long, thin aisle to the projector. The house lights go down. The film begins.
Before the first frame, foreboding music plays. Then a red sun appears and moves forward until viewers are taken into the sun and out of the flame emerges a primordial earth, a grainy pink tinted wasteland. The footage is culled from a decades-old U.S. Bureau of Mines reel, a quirky promotional film obtained from the National Archives that explains how, during the earth’s formation, asbestos was created. Outside of Libby, the footage is meaningless camp. But here it elicits a shallow gallows humor.
The film bleeds into a series of Super 8 movies. Black and white and fuzzy color clips of a merry boomtown. It’s Libby, but not as it is today. The older crowdwhich dominates tonight’s showingsees themselves or their parents in the salad days. They chuckle at the loggers, smile at the pretty girls in classic JC Penney print dresses. Mineral Avenue buzzes in peaceful Mayberry fashionunlike the Gut, as the current crop of teenagers have christened the strip, with nighttime cars pumping out bass beats and driving too fast.
On top of the footage come voiceovers from yet to be introduced characters, but voices this group recognizes. Benefield’s voice says: “This is Libby, Montana and things don’t happen in Libby.”
Watching this Benefield just sits with her hands folded in her lap and takes it in.
The film’s story unwinds, layers are peeled off. More stock footage, shots of mountains and streams, quick bites of interviews, but nothing overcast. It’s not until Earl Lovick appears that the film becomes more than just flashes of Libby history.
Mr. Lovicka Grace Company manageris being deposed at Skramstad’s negligence suit with the company. The footage is beat up VCR tape and Lovick looks like a disheveled undertaker.
His demeanor is chilly, rolling eyes and graceless pregnant pauses before answering questions. He seems evasive on the subject of what his company knew about the dangers of its product. The attorney deposing him is listing the company’s wrong doings and making Mr. Lovick explain to the jurors how dozens of employees died.
The townspeople didn’t attend Skramstad’s trial and the local and national media didn’t cover it. For most, this is the first time they are seeing Earl Lovick presented as a company man, not a fellow townsperson.
After an hour, the film reaches Libby’s worst moments, but the people stay put watching themselves. They watch what is common knowledge in Libby: EPA manager Paul Peronard cursing at his superiors over lost funding, Ronald Reagan and Peter Grace happily shaking hands, Gov. Martz announcing that all she can do for the people of Libby is pray, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman promising that government is here for them.
Then, along with all the milestones, they watch themselves do what they do everyday. Bauer cuts hair at the Deluxe.
Skramstad in the same shirt he wore today. Benefield goes about the simple tasks of advocacy work. The cameras even capture the Dome Theater’s marquee blinking on a dark Mineral Avenue.
The final scene. A memorial salute to the dead, 200 white, wooden crosses, with names Benefield has stenciled in Sharpie. As a crowd gathers around the memorial, someone reads a final list. The voice slowly calls the names of the dead. A man in the audience with a tough face and oil-stained Carhartt jacket is crying. He lets the tears be.
The screen returns to black. Two beats after the credits begin, after Carr and Hawes-Davis’s names appear in white against the black, ten seconds of applause breaks out. The house lights come up and everyone but a handful gets up and leaves.
“Hey,” shouts Hawes-Davis. “After everybody files out, we’ll just be here in case anybody has any questions. We just want to let everybody who wants to leave leave.”
But no one wants to stay for a post-film Q & A. Benefield and her family, Bauer from the barber shop, most everyone exits together, and the theater is stripped to a bare 20 stragglers in less than two minutes.
Dedrick comes up behind Carr and turns him around with a hand on his shoulder. “Carr, nice job,” he says.
“Thanks, Bob, I’m glad you liked it.” The two shake and then Bob is gone.
Thanks and good jobs echo over and over with a pat on the back from the ladies and a hand shake from the men. Another re-telling is over and that’s the end of it for Libby until the next story.