A documentary about the Kootenays is airing on Cable 10.
Remembering Salt, a short documentary by Trail-born filmmaker and historian Ron Verzuh, was shot in Castlegar on Nov. 16, 2014 at the Castle Theatre during a historic showing of Salt of the Earth.
The 1954 film, blacklisted not only because the filmmakers had been exiled from Hollywood under McCarthy, but because it supported the labour movement, was first shown in Castlegar 60 years earlier in 1954.
Verzuh is a published labour historian and a current PhD student at Simon Fraser University.
His thesis, which is currently in progress, is titled The Smelter Wars and is about “the changing social relations that occurred in 1937 to 1955 in Trail.”
“I call it The Smelter Wars because the late days of the Depression led to a union organizing campaign, and that campaign lasted for the entire length of the World War, after which there were continuing disputes and wars, including the Cold War and … the Korean War in the early ’50s. So it was quite a war time period all the way through either philosophically, on the political level, or just people shooting each other.”
A lot of the soldiers returning home to Trail ended up working in the smelter and eventually formed a union, Mine-Mill Local 480 (now the United Steelworkers), and it was this union that organized the first screening of Salt of the Earth in Castlegar.
At the time the film had not been shown in more than 13 theatres across the continent because it had been blacklisted. Local 480 had tried to show the film in Trail, but both theatres there declined, ironically because the Projectionist Union had threatened to ban any projectionist who showed the film.
The owner of Castle Theatre, who agreed to show the film, was Les Campbell, who at the time also owned Castlegar News.
In addition to being a labour historian, Verzuh is also connected to the labour movement through his former life as a longtime employee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and headed the union’s international solidarity program.
In what could almost be called a stroke of luck, CUPE employees in Castlegar happened to be on strike during the showing of Salt of the Earth, the picket lines giving Verzuh a clear visual connection between past and present, and the film itself.
“I didn’t come up for that reason and I didn’t know there was a strike on, but it turned out to work to my advantage for the film,” said Verzuh.
After watching Salt of the Earth at the theatre, Castlegar residents went out to support CUPE strikers, making the connection between past, present and art that much stronger in Verzuh’s documentary.
“People came and they laughed, and they cried and they talked and then they wondered down to the picket line at City Hall,” he said.
Asked about how a film made over 60 years ago remains relevant today, Verzuh pointed to the suppression of the film for political ends.
“Canada’s Bill C-51 and the US Patriot Act are clear indications that if a film like Salt of the Earth were to be made today, it could again suffer widespread political suppression,” he said. “The story of whistle blower Edward Snowden is proof positive that we are being officially spied upon as were many people in the 1950s, including the Salt filmmakers.”
Remembering Salt is part of a trilogy of documentary films focused on history in the Kootenays.
Verzuh’s first film was Joe Hill’s Secret Canadian Hideout (2014) and focuses on the time the famous labour organizer and singer/songwriter spent in Rossland. Like Remembering Salt, this film highlights connections between the past and present, this time by using the Joe Hill Coffee House.
The third movie, not yet made, will be about Project 9 and the role Trail played in making the atomic bomb.
While the research behind the films came out of Verzuh’s PhD work, the impetus to make the films was also deeply personal.
“Growing up in that area, these were things you hear about, right? Your dad and mom would talk about things that are the subject of my trilogy of films and I was curious as I got older whether there was any truth to any of it and what it meant. What it meant on a larger geopolitical scale,” said Verzuh.
Remembering Salt will air on Cable 10 tomorrow at 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21 at 1 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m., Monday, Nov. 23 at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 5 p.m.