Philipsburg's revitalization story

A scene from Jim Jenner's documentary "Saving the Burg," which chronicles Philipsburg's revitalization story and premieres in Philipsburg on Feb. 21. The documentary will air on Montana PBS in April.

A documentary depicting Philipsburg’s transformation from a near ghost town to a destination site for visitors will premiere later this month in the heart of the community whose revitalization it tracks. 

The premiere of “Saving the Burg” is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, at the old fire hall at Broadway and Sansome streets. It's an event that director Jim Jenner says is the culmination of nearly two years of work and over 30 hours of interviews.

The documentary is also set to air on Montana PBS in April.

For some Philipsburg residents, Jenner is best known as an active member of the local Rotary Club. But he also happens to be an experienced documentary filmmaker.

He got his start in media at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where he later joined CBS television news, covering stories during the civil war in what was then East Pakistan. He left CBS to start his own film company, through which he produced countless commercials and videos. He’s also the creator of a series of documentaries on Route 66 and several films on pigeon racing.

Jenner has been involved in many film projects over his long career, but he says “Saving the Burg” was something special — a labor of love, one might say.

“I’ve never been quite as challenged in terms of making sure that it was the truth well told,” Jenner said Wednesday.

The roots of the project came out of Philipsburg’s sesquicentennial celebration — the 150th anniversary of Philipsburg’s founding — which residents celebrated in 2017.

The committee responsible for planning the celebration came up with the idea of making a video celebrating the town’s history.

But Jenner had a bigger vision in mind.

He didn’t want to tell a story just about mining and logging. Instead, he wanted to tell a story that honored both the past and present, one that told of how a community brought itself back from the brink.

Philipsburg has done what many small rural communities across the country have sought to do: in the aftermath of the flight of industry, the town found ways to revitalize itself and move on to a new chapter in its history.

As has been previously reported, various towns have sought to emulate Philipsburg’s model, even packing government and economic-development officials into a van and taking them to the town to study its special sauce.

To tell Philipsburg’s story, Jenner decided to use a photojournalism project led by Patty Reksten as a point of entry.

In 1987, Reksten led 13 University of Montana students to the former mining community, where they spent days photographing the town and the people — “warts and all,” Jenner said.

Reksten later turned the project into a master’s thesis and a book called “Focus on Philipsburg.”

The Philipsburg of the 1980s was much different than the destination town of today. For one, there wasn’t any candy.

Instead, vacant storefronts and monotone facades were the norm on the town’s main thoroughfare. It was the result of mining and logging industries that had closed up shop and moved on — the kind of scene that caused poet Richard Hugo to write that “the principal supporting business now is rage” in his poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”

Jenner reached out to the University of Montana to locate some of the students involved in “Focus on Philipsburg.”

He ended up getting in touch with Todd Goodrich, now a photographer in the Office of University Relations at the University of Montana, and Brian Keller, a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department in Lake County, Illinois.

Jenner said he flew Keller to Montana for the project — a big expense for the indie film.

Jenner couldn’t have had better luck selecting Keller and Goodrich as sources for the documentary. The two seemed to balance each other out, Keller with a jovial, earnest, outgoing personality and Goodrich with a more laid-back, subtle style.

The two walk along Broadway Street in the film, recalling their memories of the photos they took, remarking at how the town has changed.

One resident photographed for “Focus on Philipsburg” is Mary Jo Byam Carstensen.

Byam Carstensen was a teenager when the students came to her town.

In one of their images, Byam Carstensen is hanging out at a house party clutching a can of beer, while her friends recline on a sofa, all smiles and laughter.

She says she got a lot of flak for the image when the book came out and that she still is a little embarrassed about it.

But for the student photographers, the image is an honest portrayal of what life was like for young people in the one-horse town in the 1980s.

Byam Carstensen says in the film that there wasn’t a lot of hope for young people back then, and that many people left after graduating high school to seek jobs and build lives elsewhere.

But now some of Philipsburg’s young people are moving back.

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Judging from the film, one can tell Byam Carstensen has a lot of passion for her town. Just talking about how the town has changed, and the people who worked to make that happen, gets her a little teary eyed.

Byam Carstensen and others who appeared in the film recently celebrated the documentary’s upcoming release during a private screening.

“There’s nothing in it that isn’t heartwarming and beautiful,” said Byam Carstensen. “It is something that I will cherish the rest of my life.”

“I feel very blessed with some of the things that have happened to go into this story,” said Jenner, noting that having Patty Reksten give him access to her book was a huge win for the film.

Jenner was also able to track down Annick Smith, who filmed Hugo touring the ruins of the Bimetallic Mining Company’s stamp mill south of Philipsburg for her 1976 film on the poet, “Kicking the Loose Gravel Home.”

Steve Immenschuh, former Granite County sheriff and chairman of the Philipsburg Arts Fund, played a supporting role behind the scenes, helping land a $12,500 grant from the Greater Montana Foundation for the project.

Immenschuh said what struck him about the film was that it showed Philipsburg’s revitalization as a collaboration among many players, whether it was Shirley Beck and Dale Siegford, who established the Sapphire Gallery and The Sweet Palace candy store in all its decadent, resplendent glory, or the cadre of owners who started the town’s brewery.

“I guess success has many mothers,” said Immenschuh, adding that viewers of the film have expressed gratitude at the completeness of its story.

Ray Ekness, director of the Broadcast Media Center at the University of Montana, said “Saving the Burg” was selected for Montana PBS’s lineup because of the organization’s drive to support small-town stories.

“I think it really shows what a small town can do when people come together,” he said.

Filmmaker and Arlee resident Jordan Lefler helped Jenner make the film. This is the third film he’s worked on with the Philipsburg-based filmmaker.

Lefler, 28, says he’s always known Philipsburg as the painted, weekend-getaway town it is today, so learning about its darker days came as a surprise.

After working on the film and helping to interview so many residents, Lefler now feels as though he has a second home.

“I feel like I’m part of the community,” he said.

As for Jenner, he said he felt a lot of pressure to get the story right, and he had to make a lot of tough calls about what to include and what to leave on the cutting-room floor.

In the end, he says he hopes “Saving the Burg” helps community members reflect on what’s been accomplished — “to look back with pride at what they did,” he said.

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