I’ll readily admit that I’m an emotional person, often for no apparent reason other than getting caught up in a moment. And I get caught up in a lot of moments, from heartbreaking to triumphant: Climactic sports finishes. Wedding toasts. Marching across a stage with diploma in hand, ready to cross that bridge from college student to full-time adult. And that’s just all in the last couple of weeks.
It doesn’t take much for me to get choked up besides a compelling moment, so it’s no surprise that, yes, I got emotional tonight. Damn you, South Side Film Festival.
The second night brought two fantastic documentaries to the Victory Firehouse on Webster St., which, in keeping theme with my apparent oblivion of all things Bethlehem, I never really knew existed. (FYI: I live a block away from the Victory Firehouse on Webster St.) It’s where the #SSFF group screens a movie every third Thursday of the month, but aside from that, I’d love to know what usually goes on there, because I don’t think it’s an actual firehouse anymore. (Only in the vein that The Firehouse is a firehouse, I guess.)
Up first: Butte, America: The Saga of a Hard Rock Mining Town, from director Pamela Roberts. The hour-plus film followed the progression of Butte, Montana from a mining mecca in the first half of the 20th century to a ghost town that lost its central economy and much of its community once the big corporation that ran the town took its business elsewhere (abroad) in the 1970s. Often bleak and at times a little hopeless, the story closely mirrored the rise and fall of Bethlehem Steel. That Roberts, a Montana native, took her film to the South Side is no small coincidence. In the director’s Q&A session that followed the screening, she said she’s fascinated by post-industrial areas, and pointed out the striking similarities between Butte and Bethlehem.
The second film of the night, then, was Building America in Bethlehem, by Anisa George, herself a local product of the Valley. For 40 minutes, George tracked the transformation that Bethlehem Steel has taken from being a worldwide titan of industry for most of last century to going bankrupt and eventually turning into a multi-million dollar casino and entertainment complex. (Sound familiar?) Listen, if you’re reading this blog, you know the story of Bethlehem Steel. And chances are you probably have some opinion on whether the Sands Casino is evil or a godsend for our community.
But do you know the stories of some of the steel workers that have lived to see their beloved plant — their home — change before their eyes? George did a phenomenal job of capturing the sadness and undying pride festering in the old workers, especially Rickie Check, the documentary’s chief source and undisputed star. I won’t spoil it, but when Check told the story of what his father said to him when he was a boy, everyone in the audience (which included many former steelworkers and their families) sat in silence and — if they were like me — was on the verge of bawling. An incredible moment that, yes, tickled my emotions. After the film concluded, Check slowly rose from the audience to thunderous applause and, beneath that, relentless appreciation for giving his life to this city. Anyone who has any kind of connection or attachment to the Steel and/or the community … this is a must see.
And really, the entire festival is turning into a must do. If it can give me a couple more moments like this one, then I’ll be a pretty big baby by the end of the week.