091109 Butte America miners photo
“Growing up in Montana, we always knew if someone was from Butte right away – from their mannerisms, the way they talked; it was a place set apart,” says Pam Roberts, who spent more than five years combing through archival film, video and photo histories to create her documentary. Courtesy of Liva Family

To much of the rest of the world, Butte, Montana, is known as home to an enormous, toxic hole in the ground, an emptiness where once stood the richest hill on earth. But for most of her life, filmmaker Pam Roberts has understood that the beauty and richness of Butte is a living, breathing thing. It's an indefinable yet undeniable fact of the place, a sense of community and character that one finds in few other locales.

"I had gone to Butte around age 12 and I still remember that impression so vividly; I fell in love with the people right off the bat and the place was so urban in relation to everything else to Montana, with many different cultures," said Roberts, whose company, Rattlesnake Productions, was founded in Missoula 27 years ago. "Growing up in Montana, we always knew if someone was from Butte right away - from their mannerisms, the way they talked; it was a place set apart. I wanted to know more of that, and what it is that made that place different."

So, just over a decade ago, Roberts decided to focus her lens on Montana's most famous mining town.

Roberts had recently returned to Butte as a location scout for another filmmaker's project. One evening, as she stood looking down upon the Berkeley Pit, the inspiration hit her.

"I was just floored, you could see that something huge had happened there and the remnants of this world-class mining town was a lot to behold; it's a filmmaker's dream because of the artifacts that are still there and also the colors - the fact that Butte is pretty high up, I think it does something to the light up there," said Roberts. "Visually it was just so gorgeous. So I decided to delve into this story."

What Roberts ultimately came up with was a documentary film that explores 100 years of history in just one hour. Employing historical film and home video footage, some reenactments, and choice selections from some 170 reels of 16mm filmed interviews that she shot over the course of more than five years, Roberts drilled down into a story that was easily as big as that mountain, and came up with a compact molehill that she calls "Butte, Montana."

The film will receive its Missoula premiere tonight, Friday, Sept. 11, at the Wilma Theatre.

"I had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to do this, even though I knew it'd be a big project," Roberts said earlier this week. "It took an immense amount of research just to get it down to a manageable story. There's so much amazing history there and it's so rich; the potential story material there is more than anything I'd been a part of before."

For Roberts, the unique challenge of the film was not in finding interesting characters or stories. Quite the contrary, "Butte is full of characters," she said. Rather, she found that even those who lived through the heyday of Butte's history had a hard time pinpointing what it was that made the place different from other mining towns in America and around the world.

"They have so much pride in themselves, and I was fascinated with that, why it was such a strong characteristic of the Butte person," said Roberts. "I think it has to do with a lot of things but certainly the time and the struggle that the miners went through in terms of hardships, death, silicosis, the hard work...There was camaraderie above and below ground that just drew people together. There's a sense of solidarity there that I've never experienced anywhere else."

Roberts completed her film around the beginning of this year, and began screening it around Montana while shopping it to distributors. The response from both has been overwhelming: At the January premiere in Butte, a capacity crowd of 1,200 people filled the Mother Lode Theater, with more than 300 turned away at the door; and recently the film was picked up by Independent Lens, an Emmy-award winning PBS series that brings independent documentaries and films to a nation-wide audience.

As a result, "Butte, America" will be seen across America on PBS on Oct. 20.

"My whole purpose in doing this is that it's my legacy to my home state," said Roberts. "It's something I can leave behind. It was a long time coming so I'm happy it's being received so well."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or jnickell@missoulian.com.

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