‘Boomtown,’ a short film that lifts a ghost town in southern Utah from obscurity to a fresh sense of historical memory, has been gaining quite a bit of momentum on the film festival circuit since its premiere last February at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula and its Utah premiere in April at the Logan Film Festival.
The film, directed by Utah filmmakers Torben Bernhard and Travis Low, will be screened Nov. 14 at the third annual DOC NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival. Two days later, the film will be screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival at 5 p.m. in the city’s Tivoli Theatre. Late last month, it played at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine.
The DOC NYC nod is especially noteworthy. The festival has quickly earned a reputation for showcasing feature-length as well as shorter documentary films that have become or are on the verge of becoming noteworthy selections for film festivals throughout the United States and around the world.
The story of ‘Boomtown’ returns to the Horn Silver Mine in Frisco, Utah, which at its peak during the early 1880s, was cited in the U.S. Annual Mining Review and Stock Ledger as ‘unquestionably the richest silver mine in the world now being worked.’ Miriam B. Murphy, who has written frequently about Utah’s early history, described the town’s story as the perfect setting for pulp fiction:
‘Two prospectors casually discover a rich ore body, a bankrupt financier promotes the venture, the boomtown of Frisco becomes one of the wildest mining camps in the West with a murder or two every evening, a tough lawman who shoots on sight begins to clean up the town, after producing millions the huge mine collapses, and Frisco becomes another ghost town.’
Nearly 125 years after a mine collapse essentially sealed Frisco’s inevitable doom, Bernhard and Low scouting the Beaver County area some 15 miles west of Milford completely missed the town’s location on their first pass. As Bernhard recalls, ‘the former boomtown was once home to thousands of people, but is now mostly sagebrush, building foundations, old mining equipment, and scraps of metal. The old charcoal kilns are listed on the National Register of Historic Places [as of 1982] but they are beginning to fall apart as well.’
In ‘Boomtown,’ Bernhard and Low reconstruct Frisco for a contemporary audience through excerpts from rare recordings of oral histories taken from individuals who had lived in a town that disappeared from the map by the end of the 1920s.
As much as this 12-minute film, which also was produced by Bernhard’s wife Marissa, reflects countless hours of historical and scholarly research, the visual imagery and tape excerpts in ‘Boomtown’ underscore the primal challenge we all face in the lifelong predicament of preserving identity. Like the other four films in their forthcoming Lost and Found Series, ‘Boomtown’ suggests, ‘nobody or very few people know our history but this will change.’
‘Boomtown’ reminds us of how easily we overlook the urban dimension that shaped the history of the American West as deeply as its rural and agricultural character. Frisco literally sprouted overnight in the 1870s after prospectors from a galena mine discovered a promising outcrop that showed high silver content. It took five years to extend the rail lines, which in Frisco’s earliest days were still at least 175 miles away, but by 1880, the town became a major center of industry and commerce.
Frisco, as viewers discover in the film, also was plagued by familiar big-city problems of today: murders, bar brawls, gambling, and prostitution, to name a few. There are stories about a man, accused of killing his wife, who ‘ran makeshift whiskey distilleries illegally,’ a woman who recalls growing up in a town that easily referenced Sodom and Gomorrah, and, most vividly, a sheriff who wasted no time in dispensing quick-trigger justice by way of his belief that ‘the dead man gives no trouble.’
The tapes were a serendipitous find for the trio of filmmakers. Looking for descendants of former Frisco residents, they found Dick Davis who had tapes apparently recorded nearly 50 years ago not long before the last generation of Frisco citizens died out. ‘Our jaws dropped,’ Bernhard explains. ‘Instead of scholars or family members talking about Frisco, it was the people who actually lived there. He couldn’t remember how he came by the tape, but knew that one of the interviewees was a family member of his.’
There is a haunting literary eloquence in ‘Boomtown,’ with these voices overlaying present-day images of Frisco that show remnants of the once-vibrant mining town and glimpses of tombstones including one with the simplest ironical epithet ‘Gone but not forgotten.’ The film’s soundscape is an Expressionistic masterpiece with the motivic unity of ghost town ambient sounds, original musical phrases, and the taped excerpts.
The film’s music comes from Earth’s 2005 album ‘Hex: Or Printing in The Infernal Method,’ which was released by Southern Lord Records. Indeed, it is a perfect symbiotic partner in the film’s overall effect. As band member Dylan Carlson explained on the band’s Web site, ‘I was heavily influenced by [Cormac McCarthy's] book “Blood Meridian; or the Evening Redness In the West,” a book that explores the real western expansion and real clash of people on this newest continent. It has been a continent that from the beginning has been alien and hostile yet posessing a bewitching beauty.’ That motif certainly echoes throughout ‘Boomtown.’
The West is filled with ghost towns. Utah has hundreds. An estimated 1,600 have been documented in Nevada. Yet, they remain strangely absent in the ongoing exercise about how we construct our local histories. Clint Thomsen, an award-winning freelance journalist who has spent much time visiting Utah’s former towns, has suggested that we should think about Frisco and others more than as curious footnotes to the state’s history:
‘Next time you see a pile of wooden planks where a house once stood, consider that every board was cut or imported by the industrious people who built these towns from scratch. Children were born there. People worked and spent their lives there. They died there and their bones still lie there under the dirt. The beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates its half-standing walls and scattered bricks.’
Indeed, ‘Boomtown’ asks its viewers to take up the question: What happens when all of our dreams end up in a figurative cemetery? And, why, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable catastrophe, some of us are able to persevere and continue the crazy dreamlike ideal of our original dreams even as the physical results of our efforts lay in ruins.
Furthermore, we must be consistently mindful of how these memories can be erased so easily and lost forever. Otherwise, our reconstructed histories end up being neatly patterned comfortable artifices that eschew the more valuable elements of critical thinking and the atheistic notion that history is governed more by chaos, unanticipated events, and anarchic upheavals than by a framework of analytical and theoretical codes.
‘Boomtown’ is the second Lost and Found Series entry that has screened at film festivals. The DOC NYC screening will take place Nov. 14 at 9:30 p.m. EST in New York’s IFC Center. ‘Boomtown’ will be screened in a program titled ‘Home Movies and Other Memories’ featuring five films.
The Nov. 16 screening in St. Louis is part of a ‘Doc Shorts: Jobs’ program showcasing eight films about how individuals make their livelihoods in different ways around the world.
In ‘Tarkio Balloon,’ the other film of the series to be publicly presented, Bernhard goes back to a cemetery in a small Missouri town where his brother, Dane, is buried. In 1985, when Bernhard was 2, his two-month-old brother died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Shot on 8-MM film and incorporating excerpts from an audio interview recorded years earlier with his mother (Janae), ‘Tarkio Balloon’ gives visibility to all parents who lost a child.
The entire series is slated to be completed in 2013 with the five films running under 15 minutes each and representing different angles and settings (Utah, Missouri, and Thailand).
‘Trash Collector’ explores the life of Chaan, a man living in a slum along the train tracks that snake through Nakhorn Ratchasima (Korat) en route to the northeast region of Thailand. Bernhard’s wife Marissa is directing ‘Thailand Cowboy,’ a fascinating look into a Thai man who lives to fuel his passion for American westerns and the romanticized personalities of that genre including John Wayne and John Ford.
The fifth film – ‘The Gospel According to Ralphael’ – is about a Salt Lake City man who has transformed a shabby warehouse into a museum of enormous concrete and steel sculptures, paintings, murals, and ceiling frescoes that synthesize his religious beliefs taken from traditional and personal interpretations of many theological foundations.
For information about The Lost and Found Series, see here.
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