One of the most important labor films ever made, Travis Wilkerson s fascinating documentary AN INJURY TO ONE provides a corrective - and absolutely compelling - glimpse of a particularly volatile moment in early 20th century American labor history. It chronicles the mysterious death of labor organizer Frank Little, a murder whose grisly details have taken on a legendary status in the state. Much of the cased evidence is inscribed upon the landscape of Butte and its stunning Montana surroundings. Butte's history was shaped by the Anaconda Mining Company, producers of ten percent of the world's copper from the town's depths during World War I. War profiteering and the company's indifference to the safety of its employees (mortality rates in the mines were higher than in the trenches of Europe) led to Little's arrival. The desperate, agonized miners overwhelmingly supported his ideas, including the abolishment of the wage system and the establishment of a socialist commonwealth. In August 1917, Little was abducted by unknown assailants who hung him from a railroad bridge. His funeral drew 8,000 people attendees, the largest in Butte's history. Little s murder provides AN INJURY TO ONE with a taut, suspenseful hook, but it isn't the only story in Wilkerson s film. Through his story and the story of Butte, viewers learn about the graphic history of the American left, the rise of McCarthyism, the beginning of the environmental movement, and even the birth of the detective novel. (Former Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett was allegedly involved in the murder, and later depicted it in his celebrated book Red Harvest.) Archival footage, intertitles, and traditional mining songs are accompanied by music from contemporary musicians including Will Oldham and Jim O'Rourke to produce a moody, effulgent, and timeless soundtrack. The result is a unique film hybrid that combines painterly images, incisive writing and meticulous historical research to produce one of the most potent historical American films of all time.
With parts of the country in the grips of a newly radicalized mood, it's tempting to wonder what an American political cinema would look like. As it is, the most prominent model we have is Michael Moore, a lightning-rod figure whose agitprop bluster can be both cathartic and frustrating. Most of what we think of as political documentary is strictly content over form, determined above all to get across the stakes surrounding a particular issue. The picture is even less encouraging in the fiction arena, where openly political filmmakers such as John Sayles or even Oliver Stone are very much outliers. A look back at the great tradition of the political avant-garde reveals exactly what our age is missing. From Dziga Vertov in the Soviet Union of the 1920s to the wave of European filmmakers who emerged or became radicalized amid the convulsions of the late '60s Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, who formed their Dziga Vertov Group ;to make films politically; the husband-and-wife team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the German film essayists Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky it's clear that radical politics and radical art go hand in hand There is little in the current cinematic landscape that matches or evokes the anger and the sense of injustice that have galvanized the protesters at Occupy Wall Street and its proliferating offshoots. You know things are bleak when people are positioning the financial-crisis indie thriller;Margin Call; as a movie of the moment. Perhaps it will take time, but while we're waiting, class warriors and curious bystanders alike might want to check out Travis Wilkerson's ;An Injury to One; one of American independent cinema's great achievements of the past decade, just issued on DVD by Icarus Films. Barely an hour long, 2002's;An Injury to One; is a film about a place: Butte, Mont., where Wilkerson lived as a teenager. Founded as a gold-mining outpost in the mid-19th century, it became a boom town in the early 20th century with the discovery of copper and the dawn of the electricity age (not to mention the outbreak of World War I). Its natural reserves depleted, Butte has become an environmental disaster zone, its open pit now a mile-wide toxic lake. The film is also about a man, Frank Little, a half-white, half-Cherokee organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World union (known as the Wobblies), who arrived in Butte in summer 1917 as miners were toiling under unsafe conditions and perishing by the thousands. Dubbed ;the agitator; by the union-busting overlords at the aptly named Anaconda Mining Co., Little was dragged out of bed one night and lynched, his body tagged with a note bearing the numbers 3, 7, 77 (the feet-and-inches dimensions of a Montana grave, according to one interpretation). The murderers were never prosecuted. Most of all ,An Injury to One; is a film about a system: a dossier on capitalism and its discontents. Wilkerson delivers his indictment in a clipped, incantatory, even-keeled voice-over. He combines archival images with striking landscape shots, uses graphics and text as strategic punctuation and induces an atmosphere of melancholy rumination with music by Will Oldham, Jim O'Rourke and others. He also widens the scope to include musings on leftist writer Dashiell Hammett, who traced his personal politics to his time in Butte, working as a detective for the mining company and, according to legend, perhaps playing a role in Little's death. (In Hammett's seminal 1929 novel;Red Harvest, the mining town is called Poisonville.) In his voice-over, Wilkerson repeatedly refers to Little as someone with an image of a different kind of world. Not least among its many virtues, An Injury to One makes it possible to imagine a different kind of cinema. --Dennis Lim, LA Times
The most exciting documentary of the season. Passionate, persuasive, and beautifully designed, AN INJURY TO ONE is a model of coherent political filmmaking as convincing in its liberalism as its formalism. --The New York Sun