Braddock America Dir. Gabriella Kessler, Jean-Loïc Portron

[Program33; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Detropia

It’s been decades since the region now known as the Rust Belt busted, although busted isn’t quite the right word. “Busted” denotes excess, a deluge in some form untenable by restraints set in place. The once proud industrial swath at the core of the United States withered and gasped, staggering towards the 21st century with gaunt hips and distended belly. The Rust Belt was the only thing that would fit anymore after all the other clothes got too big to wear. Pinning this loose conglomeration together is the rough steel buckle of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Braddock, a town that spent years in impoverished innocuousness after a period as one of the nation’s leading steel producers, finds itself at the center of attention again. Morgan Spurlock brought his plucky enthusiasm and handlebar mustache to Braddock for A Day in the Life of unconventional mayor John Fetterman. Levi’s spearheaded their “Go Forth” campaign with commercials of Braddock slowly picking itself up amid sepia and wreckage as only the American spirit will allow. Considering Braddock’s size and the story of urban decay ubiquitous throughout America, you do pause and wonder why so much attention is paid to a ghost town like many other ghost towns. Enter directors Jean-Loïc Portron and Gabriella Kessler with camera to create Braddock America, an work on the crushing reality of post-industrial globalism and the people who inhabit it.

This brand of documentary has become something of a hot commodity in recent years. Following the vein of Detropia (TMT Review), Braddock America examines a crippled giant and how it fell to the floor. Along for the ride are the staunch or broken residents of Braddock, recounting the glory of yesterday and the weight of seeing a community that fostered them crumble on their heads like an abandoned building. While this has become an uncomfortably familiar subject matter in America, Braddock was created by a French team and premiered overseas, allowing the world one of their first intimate glimpses of the corroded bits of the country covered up from the global public eye.

The emotional trajectory of the film is familiar, but nevertheless cathartic. A large swath of the narrative is filled with bent but standing denizens living the only life they’ve known, heads covered by clapboard and staring a little too long off in the distance. Policemen watch TV in passivity. Salvage crews collect discarded couches in early morning light. In the midst of duty and commiserating with one another, there’s one character looming in every shot: the question of how it all came to this. It’s raw.

Braddock America is, as we’d like to believe somewhere in the American consciousness, not a place cast out from redemption. These people are survivors, and for as long as they look back, they glance forward, too, hoping to see something wonderful coming over the hill. The format is by the book and the story is familiar, but you still end the documentary hoping calloused hands can pull up a community by the bootstraps.

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