Braddock America: Film Review

A poignant and endearing portrait of post-industrial Americana.

One of the country’s former steel hubs is the subject of Jean-Loic Portron’s and Gabriella Kessler’s documentary, which premiered in the Cannes ACID sidebar.

Offering yet another example of globalization’s devastating effects on a thriving industrial town, Braddock America follows in the footsteps of Roger and Me and Detropia with its touching portrayal of citizens trying to pick up the pieces after their livelihoods have been wrecked by economic downsizing. This debut documentary feature from filmmakers Jean-Loic Portron and Gabriella Kessler reveals how the former heart of Pennsylvania steel country is now an empty shell of vacant homes and scattered survivors, whose collective memories of their once-great community are filled with bitter tears, along with the hope that things may eventually get better.

Released mid-March in France, the film will see additional fest play after premiering in last year’s ACID section at Cannes, with stops in Lussas, Thessaloniki and, appropriately, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Pubcasters and small-scale distributors specializing in socially minded content should also take notice.

Opening archive footage shows how Braddock, PA used to be one of America’s major steel manufacturers, with Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead plant remaining the largest of its type in the country. But ever since the local industry collapsed in the 70s and 80s, with many jobs shifting overseas, the city lost roughly 90% of its population, leaving behind whole neighborhoods of abandoned houses and businesses, as well as reminiscences of a bygone era marked by working-class stability.

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Interviewing community organizers, police officers, former factory workers and other enduring residents -- many of whom cannot hold back sobs when they talk about Braddock’s distinguished past -- Portron and Kessler reveal how the city’s lingering inhabitants cope with significantly lower incomes and an overall sense of urban desolation, with hardly enough public funds to clean up all the wreckage.

One particularly memorable sequence features a cop and a surveyor walking down an eerily quiet street and marking homes for future demolition. Another one shows kids in the 1980s running around a deserted school building, while a later scene depicts what these children may have become today: unemployed men with very few skills or job prospects, some of them former gangbangers who’ve already served prison time.

Despite the bleakness, the strong sense of solidarity among locals, not to mention their rugged sense of humor, is apparent in scenes where they fight the corporate bigwigs that robbed their town, while banding together to improve conditions for the next generation. Whether managing a little league field or literally shoveling garbage themselves, Braddock’s resilient denizens show that if their city has a future at all, it will be forged by those who refuse to give up, no matter how bad things look today.

Capturing all the desolate locations in crisp HD compositions, the filmmakers depict a ravaged industrial landscape that’s not without its own haunting beauty, especially during the magic hour. (Braddock’s picturesque setting was the backdrop for Scott Cooper’s recent Out of the Furnace, as well as a memorable Levi’s ad by John Hillcoat. Resident filmmaker Tony Buba, the subject of a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives last year, is one of the documentary’s main interviewees.)

Accompanying the eye-catching imagery and archive material is an orchestral score by Valentin Portron that mimics the woozy, deafening hum of a steel town still at work.


Production companies: Program 33

Directors: Jean-Loic Portron, Gabriella Kessler

Producers: Christine Doublet, Fabrice Coat

Director of photography: Jean-Loic Portron

Editor: Veronique Lagoarde-Segot

Music: Valentin Portron

Sales agent: ZED

No rating, 101 minutes