Tony Buba’s 1979 black-and-white documentary Sweet Sal opens with a stream of trash talk. The film’s namesake, middle-aged wise guy Sal Carulli, leans against the exterior of a bar on the main drag of Buba’s hometown of Braddock, a declining suburb of Pittsburgh. Sal is talking about his favorite subject, himself. “The real name is Sal-va-to-re,” he explains, drawing out each syllable for maximum pizzazz. “It’s a beautiful name! It means savior. Savior. Am I a savior? I’m a killer! I’m a killer, I’ll pop somebody in a second! Savior.”
I called up the filmmaker one afternoon at his home in Braddock Hills, where he’s lived since 2001, after his childhood home in Braddock proper was pulled down. Buba, who is featured in the Topic documentary series Braddock, PA, has chronicled the lives of the people he’s met along the way in his own dozen-plus films. He describes Sal as a “mafia wannabe,” always decked out in alligator shoes and silk suits, who had apprenticed at his grandfather’s cobbler shop before running a bookmaking joint.
As is the case with many of his other films, Buba himself appears in Sweet Sal, walking bemusedly beside Sal while he plays tour guide: “Aw, Braddock, it’s got all the nuts in the world,” Sal sneers, indicating the passersby. “The people who made you, they should cut them loose; the people you’re with, you should cut them loose. They’re saner than what the hell we got in these streets here.” Adorned with a cropped pageboy haircut, quick to turn a snarl into an even further over-the-top grin, Sal is persuasively menacing at first, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him: he’s a leading man with a knack for turning every last exchange into an ersatz Shakespearean monologue—making him the perfect alter ego for Buba, the soft-spoken “bard of Braddock.”
At 74, Tony Buba has made a career of chronicling the bizarre afterlife of Braddock, a steel town whose population has been on decline since World War II. Buba was born in 1944, around the time that those who could leave Braddock did—veterans on the GI Bill with access to education and low-interest mortgages in brand-new suburbs. Those who couldn’t, didn’t, usually prevented by redlining or lack of a better job. Buba began making films as a graduate student in the 1970s, and the town lost more than 3,000 people over the next ten years.
Buba’s parents came from the impoverished Italian region of Tursi, settling in Braddock in the 1920s, when Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks were at their peak. By then the town’s population was 20,000, most of whom were immigrants from Italy, Croatia, and Slovakia. (In his 1983 short film, Voices From a Steeltown, Buba explains that Carnegie hired immigrants because they weren’t unionized and “he didn’t want any labor problems in his mill.”)
Buba defines his life by the difference in options afforded his generation versus his parents’. His father, Edward, was a welder for 40 years, who never wanted his sons to work at the mill. Instead, Tony spent six years in the National Guard before studying film at nearby Edinboro University and later Ohio University; his brother went on to edit movies for George A. Romero, eventually working on Michael Mann’s 1995 epic Heat and the 1997 Johnny Depp vehicle The Brave.
Like his friend and collaborator Romero, creator of Night of the Living Dead, Buba’s sensibility stems as much from a love of cinema as it does from a hardscrabble upbringing. Romero’s 1978 film Martin—in which a young vampire targets women in Braddock—was filmed at Buba’s childhood home.
As a student in the 1970s, Buba took to documenting the old-timers of his hometown in a series of short 16 mm films he would later call The Braddock Chronicles—vérité snatches of working-class life from the inside out, glimpses of dereliction that neither make time for pity nor ask the viewer for theirs. Buba tells me his impulse to document Braddock came out of periodic visits to his hometown, where he’d notice how little things—and people—had changed over the years. His first film, the two-minute 1972 short To My Family, was an homage to his grandfather’s shoe shop, which had just been shuttered.
Tony Buba has made a career of chronicling bizarre afterlife of Braddock, a steel town whose population has been on decline since World War II.
Buba traces Braddock’s peak back to the postwar period, before the steel industry collapsed, when middle-class people could make enough money to exit for posh Pennsylvania suburbs. His conflicted feelings about pursuing a career in the arts—built on his parents’ foundation of manual labor—are impossible to miss across the films.
Buba’s 105-minute masterpiece, Lightning Over Braddock, turns 30 years old this year. It’s probably the closest thing the filmmaker has to a breakout hit, predating Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary about the decline of Flint, Michigan, Roger & Me, by just over a year. Lightning Over Braddock played a slew of film festivals, taking home a nomination for Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, and securing distribution from New York–based Zeitgeist Films. But while Moore’s career now has him crisscrossing the globe as an activist filmmaker and celebrity, Buba has remained in Braddock.
Lightning Over Braddock is unique among Buba’s body of work: it builds on the relationships chronicled in his prior films, but also sees the director starring as a caricature of himself, torn between continuing his practice versus cashing out and going “big time.” Sal, forever ready for his close-up, returns as leading man. The film is an autobiographical mea culpa for a brush with fame that never really happens. Using himself as a kind of narrative prism, Buba invents his own language to skirt the perimeters of fact and fiction: one scene has him being interviewed about Sweet Sal on a TV show, clearly patterned after Siskel & Ebert, before cutting to Sal sitting alone at home, disconsolate, watching Buba talk about him on TV. In this warped version of reality, Sal develops a fan following due to his performance in the earlier short, while Tony (briefly) wins the attention of a mysterious Hollywood producer. More than halfway into shooting, Sal quits the film, throwing Tony’s new project into crisis.
Buba portrays himself as a guilt-ridden Catholic, equally beleaguered by the falling out with Sal and his inability to get a grant to finish a documentary about the impending US Steel plant closures; he asks his grandmother to say a prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. At confession for the first time in 20 years, Buba tells the priest he’s a documentary filmmaker, and the priest consults a printed-out list of stock advice to be given to people of varying professions. “Documentary Filmmakers” is near the bottom, just above “Sex Therapists.” He tells Tony: “Thou shalt go to Hollywood.” Near the film’s end, Buba shows us the closing of a nearby US Steel plant in Youngstown, Ohio; an unnamed executive is quoted on the nightly news as saying, “We are in the business to make money, not steel.”
Buba’s impulse to document Braddock came out of periodic visits to his hometown, where he’d notice how little things—and people—had changed over the years.
There are a handful of filmmakers with careers comparable to Buba’s: In her 1976 film Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple fixed her sights on labor inequities and union struggles at a coal mine in southern Kentucky. With an unflinching eye, the late Les Blank chronicled offbeat American traditions—a garlic festival in Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, a crawfish boil in Always for Pleasure, a Minneapolis “polka palace” in In Heaven There Is No Beer?—that stretched back for generations. Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries like Canal Zone and Titicut Follies betray a patience for the nitty-gritty of building relationships with on-screen subjects that’s comparable to Buba’s. And then there’s Martin Scorsese, another Roman Catholic descendant of immigrants who couldn’t help but notice the has-beens and “wise guys” around the neighborhood while he was growing up.
Though he’s made five features and more than a dozen shorts over the past 45 years, Buba describes himself as slow to finish his films; he carefully builds his movies around his relationships with the people on-screen. Many of the same characters appear in multiple films, as do pet motifs—Buba constantly weighs the costs of filmmaking with Braddock’s more urgent needs—and jokes about his status as filmmaker, hiding behind the camera. The 1981 short Mill Hunk Herald features an accordion version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but Buba was unable to secure permission to include a local performer’s rendition of the same song for Lightning Over Braddock. Instead, he takes to describing his legal woes in voice-over: the rights to the song cost $15,000, three times the per-capita income of a Braddock resident.
Buba’s work probably isn’t flashy enough to command the attention of Hollywood studio executives, nor opaque enough for hard-core art house cinephiles—he describes his movies as failed stabs at agitprop, forever in the shadow of his idol Luis Buñuel’s 1933 classic Land Without Bread, a half-hour pseudo-documentary that juxtaposes the adventurism of tourists and photographers against the shocking poverty of the mountainous Las Hurdes region. While the Braddock Chronicles carried on that humanist tradition, Lightning is as much about the filmmaker’s own crisis of conscience, a rumination on the role of hyper-regional documentary in the face of economic crisis. Later docs like Struggles in Steel: A History of African-American Steelworkers (1996) and We Are Alive! (2013) are less neurotic than Lightning: the former, codirected with Buba’s high school classmate Ray Henderson, may go down in history as his angriest work for its depiction of racism suffered by black steelworkers, while the latter methodically documents an unsuccessful push to keep open the community hospital operated by the University of Pittsburgh.
Struggles in Steel concerns the steel communities of Braddock and neighboring towns, including Duquesne and Pittsburgh, and the African American workers descended from former slaves who migrated northward in the late 19th century. Ray Henderson had worked for 18 years at the Duquesne Steel Mill, and called Buba up after watching a TV documentary about job losses in the industry, incensed that it failed to include a single black laborer. Struggles features over 70 retired black steelworkers reflecting on their experiences both in the mill and against the union. There’s also a sly elision on the filmmakers’ part: as Buba tells me, he didn’t interview any of the foremen or factory people discussed by the steelworkers, because “we didn’t want it to be as though they needed a white person to validate their story. … If I’m not honest to the people I’m interviewing I’ll end up distorting what they say, moving them in the direction of whatever my political thoughts are.”
The testimonies are sobering: they detail racist oppression and neglect over centuries, from sharecropping through lynching, segregation, and rates of chemical poisoning that befell laborers in Braddock’s unregulated days as an industrial powerhouse. The film focuses in particular on the mistreatment of Henderson’s elders at the hands of the steelworkers’ union, which privileged white workers and withheld benefits from black members. One interviewee describes training an inexperienced white man, then seeing him go on to become his boss. The workers filed a civil suit against the union in 1974 and eventually won—but while reparations of half-a-billion dollars were called for, the payment was ultimately $30.7 million, spread across 40,000 former steelworkers. The laborers describe the double offense of being under-compensated and signing away their rights to sue again, a searing indictment of the lack of solidarity awaiting workers of color after the end of World War II. What leavens the material is the obvious camaraderie between the filmmakers and the talent, cracking wise about a nightmarish situation—the same common touch that separates Buba’s work from other hard-charging, dogmatic works of nonfiction.
“We didn’t want it to be as though they needed a white person to validate their story.”
In his earlier movies, Buba wonders whether his grant money could be better used in the service of the poor—but then, his career is also an object lesson in the drying-up of public arts funding. We Are Alive! relied on a Kickstarter campaign to generate funds for completion; donor rewards included a dinner of pizza and wine at Buba’s own home. Finished in 2013, the film is a chronicle of direct actions against the closure of the full-service University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Braddock, but most of the activists involved were never optimistic. Over the course of Buba’s narrative, their demands shift from keeping the hospital open to asking for an 18-month extension to figure out a low-cost alternative. In the end, UPMC went through with the closure, citing the high cost of operation and “a continuing declining utilization of the facility by the community.” Buba disagrees, effectively accusing University of Pittsburgh of abandoning Braddock, and using the crisis to profile his hometown from a new angle: the post-steel activist community. Like the earlier films, We Are Alive! sidesteps the wringing of easy elegies from a stale Rust Belt narrative. It’s representative of a filmmaker who has remained on the ground, taking audiences through the unglamorous paces of grassroots organizing, and inevitably returning to the question: “Now what?”