Ghost Towns Reveal American History in Brilliant Documentary
Like a cinematic archaeologist, Lee Anne Schmitt packed her 16mm camera to explore the past of California’s once-booming ghost towns which presently lay empty for a variety of reasons, mostly because of the disappearance of the natural resources upon which the local industries had originally depended. What she found and recorded for posterity is shocking proof of how quickly corporate interests are willing to rape and then abandon any area as soon as it is no longer profitable.
But besides discovering these companies’ immoral indifference to ecological concerns, she found that many simultaneously advanced racist, classist and anti-union agendas, and often with the complicity and/or approval of the authorities.
For example, Schmitt visits a barren wasteland called McCloud, California, a city incorporated by the McCloud Lumber Company which entirely owned not merely the manufacturing business but the local schools, stores, even the union hall. In her research, the director unearthed proof that McCloud paid its black employees less than its white workers. Worse, when it came to living quarters, Caucasians were allowed to rent ready, well-constructed housing while African-Americans were forced to build shacks for themselves on the other side of town out of castoff boards of wood.
The legacy of Latinos revealed here isn’t any better, in cities such as Keene where migrant farm workers were treated as if they were less than human. No wonder the late, labor organizer Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to improving conditions for Mexican immigrants, especially after watching his father being denied a living wage or decent working conditions by avaricious agribusiness interests.
Schmitt also shot footage in Manzanar, the vacant site of a former concentration camp used to house American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Along with the eroding exoskeleton, she mixes in priceless propaganda wartime footage of Japanese forced by the government to put on a minstrel show in blackface ostensibly to let the rest of the country know how happy they were behind barbed wire.
As the peripatetic Schmitt travels from town to town, to places with unfamiliar names like Chester, Scotia, Kaweah, Drawin, McKittrick, Corcoran, Arvin, Buttonwillow, Trona, Boron, Adelanto, Salton City, Silver Lakes and California City, again and again, she educates her audience about each desolate region’s devastation and about it’s ugly, unspoken history. A brilliant, haunting and informative expose’ not to be missed and not to be forgotten at awards season.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for profanity, sexuality and drug use.
Running time: 76 minutes
Studio: Anthology Film Archives