Braddock, America

Braddock, America is a feature length documentary set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a town (actually a circle of boroughs) that has been the stage for momentous events, out of proportion with its constrained area. From George Washington to Andrew Carnegie, through the French and Indian War to the collapse of the steel industry, these few acres along the Monongahela River have always been a battleground.

In its own way, through immigration, industrialization, the rise of trade unionism and its destiny in question, Braddock tells a story of America: a rebellious, combatant America inhabited by men and women who refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them. “Resist much, obey little,” Walt Whitman urged his fellow citizens; and indeed his words could be the motto of this film. The Monongahela Valley has been heavily stricken by the steel crisis and the shutdowns of the mills in the 80’s. It is probably easier to find more enchanting places in the world, but if many don’t imagine leaving the valley, it is because they know that this tiny parcel of land bears the traces, buried in its soil and in their memories, of events that helped build the history of their nation. This same awareness leads them to believe that such a special place might one day help map out a future for the United States.

In the beginning, there was nothing: just dark forests through which wide rivers sliced. Then there was a battle. In July 1755, Edward Braddock, a British general, lost his army in an ambush led by a handful of French and Indians. Because it sparked the French and Indian War (1756-1763), the battle was to have unimaginable consequences for those who had fought on the banks of the Monongahela: the French were to be driven out of America; subsequently, the colonists would get rid of their English masters.

A little more than a century after the fighting, Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill on the very site of the battlefield. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela. Thus, two of the most powerful companies in the world were to grow on the mass graves of General Braddock’s soldiers. In that sense, for decades, the Monongahela valley has been the industrial pulse of the country, the cradle of the American wealth. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation – the train tracks that opened up the West, the Ford automobiles, the girders of the downtown skyscrapers – was cast right here in Braddock, Homestead or Duquesne.

After the original battle, conflict never ceased to affect this narrow stretch of land. A war for rights and dignity followed the war for the land. The steelworkers had to fight fiercely for the right to live decently, the right to form and to join trade unions, the right to equal pay for equal work without discrimination. The Monongahela Valley was the stage of bitter strikes, which had national and even international repercussions. Today, its residents are once more at the forefront of a battle. What would a post-industrial America look like? What is to be done? The Rust Belt has lost a manufacturing empire but has not yet found its new role. Something has to be invented (easy to say, difficult to do). Solutions are coming from “below”, through the commitment of inhabitants of the Valley: entrepreneurs, business leaders, politics, community organizers, unionists, activists, utopists, each in his own way contribute to reinvent the future.

We are two filmmakers from different backgrounds and experiences. Gabriella is an American citizen; Jean-Loïc is French. One is a woman in her thirties, the other, a man in his fifties. We don’t always see eye to eye (so much the better!) but we are equally concerned. Industrial change has struck both sides of the Atlantic. Because of this, we consider the fate of Braddock to be emblematic of social and political issues that are as important to the United States as they are to Western Europe. What is happening in the Mon Valley may not provide any solutions, but it will undoubtedly raise awareness on both sides of the Atlantic.

Braddock, America weaves together the past, the present and a future that haunts the whole town. It is a journey through time, composed of shards of memory, and of personal stories ground down by the wheel of history. There is no narrator or off-screen voice. What holds it all together is the violence, and its opposite: the refusal to be subjected. The film is resolutely on the side of Braddock people. It is made in their image: pugnacious, foul-mouthed, and sometimes poignant.

First, there are the voices and the people to which they belong. Then, there are the places, landscapes bruised by old wounds. Sometimes a memory clings on and a story gushes out, prompted by trees, hills, or the river. Footage occasionally awakens the glory of the past. Lastly, situations filmed in the present confirm the Braddock Field as a new “frontier,” as a focus of its own reinvention. Thus, the film interweaves parallel stories. Transitions function according to a fictional logic. What is important is the collision of these images and the resulting sparks.

A final word about the title: the film is obviously not limited to the borough of Braddock. It includes all the towns concerned with the original battle and the steel industry: North Braddock, Braddock Hills, Rankin, Swissvale, East Pittsburgh, Homestead, Duquesne… We believe that, in terms of memory and commitment – the key words of this film -, there are more similarities than differences.