Lightning Strikes Again | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lightning Strikes Again

· Lighting Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy (1988), by Tony Buba
· 8 p.m. Tue., Sept. 9. Melwood Screening Room, Oakland. $4
· 7 p.m. reception. Artist Q&A. 412-316-3342, x 178

The decline of the local steel industry is a topic only slightly fresher than the demise of steam trains. It was hardly a scoop even in 1988, the year filmmaker Tony Buba premiered Lightning Over Braddock, his "exploded documentary" set against the backdrop of his Mon Valley hometown's fading fortunes.

But if Lightning Over Braddock doesn't feel like a bygone era's leftovers, it's largely because it's about more than displaced workers and blast furnaces gone cold (though it's about them, too). Subtitled "A Rustbowl Fantasy," the independently made, wildly inventive 78-minute first feature remains a funny, sad, provocative and ultimately haunting look at how an artist relates to his subjects, his community and himself.

Lightning Over Braddock, which will get its 15th-anniversary screening at the Sept. 9 Film Kitchen, was first conceived as fiction. In the early '80s, Buba was internationally acclaimed for a series of short films chronicling his family, local characters, and once-vibrant Braddock's life and hard times. Among his subjects was Salvatore Carulli, the nervy street hustler profiled in the classic Sweet Sal, who was going around saying Buba's success was all thanks to him, and that he'd somehow been exploited.

Buba envisioned a film based on that conflict, but over the next few years -- as he shot more footage of mill closings and the accompanying political protests, and as his artistic star continually rose through chronicling Braddock's decline -- it evolved into something else: an unclassifiable blend of fiction, documentary, fictional documentary and experimental techniques that the Washington City Paper's Joel E. Seigel wrote comprised "Buba's 8 _, a serio-comic auto-critique of the director's Italian-Catholic conscience at war with his filmmaking aspirations."

Lightning Over Braddock incorporates fantasy send-ups of The Godfather, Gandhi and Rambo (all starring Sal), plus clips of Buba's earlier films and original cinema verité footage. "I got tired of seeing the documentaries where it was an interview, a Pete Seeger song, another interview with a cranky leftist, another Pete Seeger song, and cutting in archival photos," says Buba today. "I wanted to go against the style of the filmmaker being all-powerful and all-knowledgeable."

Made on a shoestring (mostly grant-funded) budget, cast with and crewed by friends and colleagues, Lightning Over Braddock screened at a couple dozen film festivals, from Sundance and Toronto to Birmingham, England, and Melbourne, Australia. As a film of its time, wrote J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, Lightning was "one of the few regional movies to successfully and unsentimentally peel off the national smile button." And as part of a new autobiographical-documentary movement that included its namesake, Wim Wenders' Nicholas Ray elegy Lightning Over Water, and Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, it prefigured similar if more commercially successful films like Michael Moore's Roger & Me.

Buba later made the fiction feature No Pets and, with Ray Henderson, the straightforward documentary Struggles in Steel, about African-American steelworkers. Now, along with teaching in the Media Arts program at Robert Morris College, he's also continued chronicling Braddock (though he recently moved to neighboring Braddock Hills). Works-in-progress include a look at the Mon-Fayette Expressway and another, about race relations, called Conversations on a Bus.

Buba says he's pleased with how well Lightning Over Braddock holds up. He even knows at least one film teacher in Oregon who still screens it in his classes. "When you work as an independent, what you really want is to have a piece that's not finished in a year's time," says Buba. "What you want is to have something that's gonna last."