Documentary shown during 100th anniversary of Italian Hall Disaster

MARQUETTE – When Ken Ross and Louis V. Galdieri began filming their documentary, “1913 Massacre,” about the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, they decided that they didn’t want to create a historical film featuring the usual experts – the historians, sociologists and professors. What they wanted instead was to create a folk history in which the people of Calumet would speak for themselves – tell their own history from their own perspective.

The documentary, first released in 2011 after a decade in the making, was shown Saturday for the 100-year anniversary of the tragedy as a special one-day screening at Northern Michigan University’s DeVos Art Museum, and featured a question and answer session with Ross and Galdieri following the film.

“We did interview a lot of historians, and we cut them out completely,” Ross said. “Because they weren’t real, because they didn’t have a direct experience, because the film is about real people, their lives, their memories…”

The film’s title, “1913 Massacre,” comes from a Woody Guthrie song by the same name recounting the events of that year’s Christmas Eve in Calumet that claimed the lives of 73 people – 59 of them children.

Significant aspects of that night’s tragic events remain a mystery, but most people agree on the following: union copper miners, five months into a bitter strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, decided to throw a party for themselves and their families on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet on Christmas Eve. At some point during the festivities, a man shouted, “Fire!”

There was no fire, however, and in the ensuing panic, people rushed to the building’s only exit – a narrow set of stairs – and were unable to get out. They were suffocated or crushed in the stairway.

To this day, the village of Calumet remains divided over who yelled “Fire!” and whether what happened in the stairway was the result of the exterior doors opening inward instead of outward (they opened outward) or whether the doors were held closed by men hired by Calumet and Hecla management to break the strike.

Ross and Galdieri said that even when they began to interview residents of Calumet for the film, people wanted to send them to historians, when the filmmakers said what they really wanted to focus on were the stories of regular people.

“People want to defer their own experience to an expert,” Ross said. “We think the film works because it’s people’s stories.”

Ross and Galdieri said that because the documentary was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s folk song – a song which in itself offered a sort of history lesson – they sought to make their film a “folk history.”

“Louis asked me if I wanted to go to one of the most remote places in the United States in the dead of winter and shoot a film with him,” Ross said. The audience erupted with laughter.

Ross said he was convinced when he saw some of the footage Galdieri had shot during a trip to Calumet in 2000, in which he asked an old woman about the Italian Hall disaster.

“The woman looks right in the camera, she doesn’t say anything, just speechless…and she starts crying,” Ross said. “So I said, ‘Oh, my God. There’s something powerful up there. I want to see this.'”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.