Topic’s August centerpiece, Braddock, PA, is a four-part documentary series set in a declining steel town just up the river from Pittsburgh, highlighting its history of heavy industry and the people working to overcome it. Featuring a local activist, filmmaker, urban farmer, and up-and-coming politician, it’s a nuanced portrait of a place more likely to be in the news for its pollution than for its hometown pride.
We spoke to series director Rosie Haber about what got left out of the series (the town’s controversial mayor) and what made the cut (politician Summer Lee’s powerful campaign for State Representative).
What got you interested in the idea of doing something about Braddock? How did you first hear about the town?
I think at first it was less about Braddock the town and more about the larger topic of environmental racism—what was happening in Puerto Rico, and what’s been happening in Oakland and Boyle Heights [in Los Angeles] for a million years.
It’s obviously just something that is rampant across the United States and the world. A few years ago, when Standing Rock was happening, this Native director, Christina King, asked me to come out and just be a camera person. So I went out there for five weeks filming with this Lakota elder, Madonna Thunder Hawk. That made me think about doing an anthology series about environmental racism and the different faces of it in this country.
How you would define environmental racism?
In a really basic way, it’s the greater environmental risks and hazards faced by communities of color—the likelihood that, for example, a mill or a place where they’re fracking is going to be put in a community of color, rather than in a more middle-class white community. It also goes along class lines obviously, but race and class intersect in a huge way.
When you were in Braddock, did you feel constantly aware of the mill? Did you smell it? Could you taste it? Was it just always kind of there as a presence?
It is always there. If you’re close to it, you can hear it very, very loudly. There’s particulate matter all over the ground, and it’s not like it’s two inches thick or anything, but you see it. The streets are far dirtier and have this particulate matter that most places do not. Also, Braddock Avenue itself has a ton, and there’s also a ton of diesel truck traffic in town, which is a bigger deal than it sounds like. There are just trucks full of coal going up and down that road nonstop, so there’s tons of pollution from the trucks.
We would film around the mill and be there for a couple hours, and we would get headaches. I don’t want to sound like this fragile white person, but I think that, as a crew, everyone felt that if they were close enough to the mill for a long enough period of time, then they would definitely feel the effects. I just can’t imagine what it would be like living next to it. You always know it’s there—it’s a striking view from almost any part of town. It’s like a fortress; you can’t go in, it’s really gated.
How did you decide how you wanted to approach the story, and how did you find the characters who you feature?
I just talked to my friends who lived in the town. One of them, Ginger, works at Braddock Farms and volunteers at the library. She also just started a very small grocery store there with another community member. She’s very well-connected within the community, and she started suggesting people who I should talk to.
One of them was Mary Carey, who is the town librarian, so I reached out to Mary and had a conversation with her. She recommended Isaac Bunn, because of his history and the fact that his house is right across from the mill and is the last house standing there.
She also introduced me to Robert Grey. In terms of Summer Lee, someone mentioned her, and I started looking her up and she just seemed really interesting. I reached out to her campaign, then talked to her that way.
How much time were you in Braddock during filming?
We were there for about three weeks.
What was the average day like?
Well, we filmed pretty much every day. A lot of that was dictated by the subjects’ schedules, and the person with the most active schedule was, of course, Summer. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. We just never knew: is this going to be the time when her opponent says something crazy, or when we get that moment with her and a citizen where she says something really amazing?
Then with Robert, it was just when we could go film with him on the farm and when we could go spend time in his home with him and [his partner] Regina. Isaac had a little bit more flexibility, as did Tony, but I think the majority was just trying to figure out how to follow the story that was unraveling the fastest, which was Summer’s.
How did you get the idea of using infrared photography for the first episode of the series? Was this project the first time you’d ever used it?
It was the first time I had worked with it. On every project I try something new visually, because I just like trying to push myself. Infrared was something that I think I had been wanting to do, but also, more importantly, infrared light is light that is invisible to us as humans that can be made visible by photographing it in a certain way. I thought that was an interesting metaphor for pollution, in that it’s something that is in some ways invisible, but can be made apparent through this infrared photography.
I did a lot of research about how to shoot with it. It’s really, really finicky, and we had to basically trick out this camera; we had to choose the right light wavelength for the specific look I was going for. When you shoot with that, you have a converted camera, then you have to put a yellow or an orange filter on the front. When you get the image back, it looks insane: the foliage is purple and the sky is green. I would look at the footage and be like, “I don’t even know what I’m looking at right now.”
So my cinematographer would then have to do a color correction in the moment on the footage. She was able to approximate what it would look like. So we sent all that stuff over to the colorist to ask if it was going to look crazy, and she said it looked right. But it was really, really finicky in terms of the exposure. If you overexpose it, it looks really super bubblegum pink, and we were going for a darker sort of reddish pink.
Was there anything you found surprising during filming?
I was really shocked by [the Braddock restaurant] Superior Motors—by where it was, by how fancy it was.
What do you mean?
Superior Motors is directly across from the mill, with an absolutely direct view. And just architecturally it’s within the building that Braddock mayor John Fetterman owns, so his home is the penthouse of that building. He has given the space in the bottom of the building to Superior Motors.
When you go in, it feels like you’re in a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or something. The prime seat is the seat where you can sit and look at the mill, and all the cutlery is made of steel. It just feels shocking to be in a town that doesn’t have a full grocery store or a gas station, but does have this. It sticks out like a sore thumb. They so obviously planned this dining experience to involve looking at the mill, which is causing all these people cancer. I feel like that was really tone-deaf and pretty horrifying. And then also, just like, weird things about Mayor Fetterman.
Can you say more?
He was just really weird to us in general.
Was he trying to be intimidating, like in the way that he comports himself or talks? Is he aggressive?
Well, I wouldn't necessarily say “aggressive.” I would say he is very gruff and sort of intimidating to press that he feels may question his motives or integrity. I feel like, as a politician, you have to be able to stand up for all of your policies. He was very imposing and really unfriendly. I think it’s because he knew that we were running around with like, Tony Buba, who doesn’t get along with him politically, and Summer Lee, who he actually didn’t endorse.
He endorsed Paul Costa, who doesn’t even support abortion rights.
It’s really crazy what a Democrat is in Western Pennsylvania. They’re actually very conservative. I think what’s happening with Fetterman is he realized that he had to align with conservatives in order to become a bigger political figure as he was running for lieutenant governor, and—this is all speculation—but it’s probably why he now supports fracking [in Braddock]. He felt like he had to run with these big guys.
Fetterman is running for lieutenant governor in the election that's coming up later this autumn. Do you think he’s going to win?
Yes, I think he will. The thing is, he does have a lot of name and face recognition, and that comes from all the media that’s been done about him, whether it’s NPR or TED Talks. As our field producer, Amber Fares, said, if you look at his politics on paper, they’re not terrible.
It was really funny, because I think that he was very sure to mention that he was pro–gay marriage to us, probably because I looked really gay, and I was just like, “I don’t care.” Don’t try to throw that out to make me feel warm toward you, when really what we’re talking about is the fact that you support fracking right now.
He runs liberal on all these issues, but not the environment. Then, more specifically, I think it’s really suspicious that he’s inviting in all of these businesses that seem to be gentrifying this area, and that he owns so much property. I could imagine that if the property prices went up in town, it would behoove him to own a lot of property.
He’s just sort of priming the town for that by inviting in white people and artists, and this beer pub and Superior Motors and whatever else.
What happens if he wins the lieutenant governorship? Who would become mayor?
There was a rumor going around that he would want to put his wife Gisele Fetterman in as mayor.
Isn’t this the United States of America? You can’t just unilaterally install your family member.
There was a rumor that said if he would step down from the mayorship early, then they would have to hold an emergency meeting in the town council, and basically Gisele would have to step forward. He couldn’t just step down and immediately put her up, but the rumor was that maybe she was being primed for that.
Would it actually be good for Braddock if Fetterman won the lieutenant governorship? Would it then remove him from day-to-day influence over the town?
Yeah, I think that if he wasn’t mayor, it would allow for someone else to come in. So many people were energized around Summer’s campaign; maybe it would be someone who was involved in her campaign who would want to step up and run for mayor. Then again, some people do feel that he’s done more than a lot of other people have done. That’s the hard thing. Robert Grey was like, “I don’t know anyone who would’ve done as much for Braddock as Fetterman has,” because he felt that he directly benefited from some of the programs that Fetterman made, such as the Braddock Youth Project.
Let’s go back to Superior Motors. Did you end up eating there at any point?
Robert grows vegetables that he delivers to Superior Motors, and we followed him when he was going in there for a delivery. He said that he had never eaten there, so we took him and his girlfriend out to eat there, and it was just an interesting experience seeing their impressions of the place.
It’s not like the dishes are covered in 24-karat gold. But in this particular environment, it’s just insane to see what they do serve: really small portions, like a diver scallop. You know, that kind of thing.
Who are the people who go eat there—are they driving in from Pittsburgh proper? Who’s going to Braddock to eat at a fancy restaurant?
It’s definitely folks from Pittsburgh who will come in. It’s purely people from out of town, and no one we had talked to [who lived in Braddock] had ever eaten there ... I think it’s just totally inaccessible for people.