AN INJURY TO ONEby Jason Livingston
Dir: Travis Wilkerson
An Injury To One
Borrowing its title from the Industrial Workers of the World’s motto, “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All,” Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury To One made quite a splash in film festival circles when it was released in 2002. Wearing its celluloid love on its very video sleeves, it’s a media hybrid of sorts, indulging in frequent 16mm roll-outs and orange washes, yet committed to split screens and textual interventions that announce newer media. Through the use of these devices and the film’s looping chronology, Wilkerson suggests that just as visual technologies co-exist, so can history be seen in today’s landscape, especially in its post-industrial and ecologically compromised state.
Wilkerson’s film follows the brutal 1917 murder of Wobblie Frank Little by six Anaconda Copper Company thugs for union organizing—or in company language, agitating—in and around the mining operations near Butte, Montana. Anaconda rightly regarded him as a major threat. Little, an IWW principal, led his organization in calls for wildcat strikes; he embraced women, minorities, and immigrants in union solidarity: and he famously spoke out against the United States’ role in World War I, linking capital and military as twin enemies of the working class. Since it owned nearly all the newspapers in Montana, the company was able to cover the assassination with lies in print, thus obscuring murder with rumors of rank-and-file dissent. Injury serves as a strong corrective to the official line, often addressing the audience in populist notes that may seem too strident for some; it even presents Marx & Engels’s greatest hit with seeming sincerity, a refrain I suspect some left avant-gardists or labor-friendly anarchists may find tin-eared.
In a striking move, however, Wilkerson finishes the Little chapter well before the halfway point in the film. The remainder of Injury circles forward and backward, speculating on a wide range of issues, including Dashiell Hammett’s union-busting Pinkerton days (and possible links to Little’s murder), McCarthyism, and environmental catastrophe, ultimately rewriting the story on the mine-scarred landscape of Butte itself. The final chapter of the film details a tragic episode of the nearby Berkeley Pit, once managed by Anaconda, where, in 1995, a migrating flock of snow geese grounded by a storm descended on the former open pit coal mine. Nearly 350 dead birds were later found floating in the toxic water.
While the film never explicitly articulates an agitprop mode of address—never asks, “What will you do now?”—such questions are implicit in nearly every frame of the mountains, roads, fences, and old homes that define its beautiful cinematography. Perhaps in this sense the ecstatic reception of Wilkerson’s film 10 years ago can be best understood in relation to American independent and avant-garde landscape cinema (James Benning, Bill Brown, Deborah Stratman, to name a few), because Injury doesn’t neatly fit into a history of labor-advocacy movie-making. There is, of course, a great, rich tradition here, from the Workers Film and Photo League of the 1930s to the ’60s-based California Newsreel, and much of the long-form direct cinema that followed, favored by fellow travelers like Barbara Kopple. Yes, Wilkerson takes a few cues, most clearly establishing a solidarity in lineage by structuring the film with workers’ songs (notably assisted by a handful of indie rock luminaries strongly associated with the Midwest, like Will Oldham, Jim O’Rourke, and Low). But there is something about the film’s commitment to a study of place and a legacy of violence and pollution in specific spaces, that may better explain its appeal. In this sense, Injury is as much a wake-up call to present-day landscape lyricists as it is a throwback to smoky union halls.
JASON LIVINGSTON is a filmmaker currently teaching in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.