When we began production of the film Libby, Montana, I called Les Skramstad to ask him to participate in the film. Our first conversation was awkward. In a hushed voice Les asked, “Are you from Grace?” I wasn’t entirely surprised by the question. The W. R. Grace Corporation had been in the news a lot lately, charged with exposing thousands of unwitting citizens in Libby to asbestos contamination. Les had been diagnosed with asbestosis and told by doctors that he had just a few years to live. But Les had other concerns. In the summer of 2001, Libby was a community in the midst of a major crisis, and everyone was affected by it. The conflict had pitted neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend — even families had been divided over the affair. Les had been labeled a “radical” and a “reactionary” by many townspeople, including several town leaders, who denied that there was a problem in Libby. They accused Les of needlessly stirring up trouble, and insisted that Grace was a charitable and loyal patron of the town.
One example of the atmosphere came to us early in filming. We were standing along a road in downtown Libby shooting an old Grace processing plant, when a car pulled up. A man rolled down the window and said simply, “Go home,” then drove off. It was an eerie thing to happen, but it confirmed to us the volatile disposition of the town. So Les was naturally wary about strangers calling and asking questions about asbestos, death and, most particularly, W. R. Grace.
Eventually Les agreed to be interviewed, and over the next few years he and his wife, Norita, welcomed us into their home on numerous occasions. Les never seemed overly concerned about his own health, but he was grief-stricken over the fact that his wife and children had also been diagnosed with asbestosis. After the first day of filming with Les, we were left feeling unsettled and saddened. His story was extraordinary, and were it not for the fact that hundreds of others in town had very similar stories, it would have been difficult to believe. When we asked Les what he hoped to accomplish by telling his story, he simply said, “I want justice. Justice for my family and my town.” Les wanted W. R. Grace to be held accountable for what had happened in Libby. He also wanted the U.S. government — which had been aware of asbestos contamination in Libby for decades — to be held accountable for ensuring that the town was cleaned up and that Libby residents would be safe from asbestos exposure.
This brought up some challenging questions for us as filmmakers: What was our role in telling this story? What responsibility did we have to our subjects? What was our ultimate objective in making the film? If we had any intention of keeping an emotional arm’s length from the subject, that idea was shattered in that first afternoon with Les. We, as much as anyone, found it nearly impossible not to be swept up in the drama of it all. This is not the best situation for a documentary filmmaker. Our role is to be in a position to tell an honest story from our own distinct point of view, which requires a certain amount of emotional distance from the subject.
We told Les that day that we couldn’t promise justice for him and his family. In fact, we couldn’t promise that this film would do anything to help his situation, or that of anyone in Libby. All we could do was report what happened in Libby and hope that this document could add something to the overall understanding of how it happened. Les seemed to be satisfied with this, and we left it at that.
Our goal in our films has always been to explore social, economic and environmental interrelationships in order to attempt to unravel the intricacies of how things happen. This is how we proceeded with the production of Libby, Montana. We began to uncover the events that led to the current situation, and then continued to cover the events as they unfolded. That process is ongoing and will continue to unfold for many years to come. In some ways when to finish the film felt like an arbitrary decision. But we attempted to tell as honest a story as we knew how, and to always keep in mind that what Les wanted was simply some justice. Why would anyone ask for anything less?
In late 2006, I called Les to let him know that the film would be broadcast on PBS as part of the POV series. Although he was very sick at the time (he had been diagnosed with late-stage mesothelioma — a rare cancer associated with asbestos exposure), he seemed to be very pleased, and he thanked us for making the film. But even then, he didn’t let the opportunity go by to make a plea to us to continue working to get the word out about Libby. “We have a lot of work to do. The government isn’t doing their job, and W. R. Grace is in bankruptcy, and if we’re not careful, they’re going to get away with this thing without having to pay a dime.” Les was right. Libby is still suffering, and although there is a better understanding in the community itself about the weight of the problem, it will be years before the cleanup is complete, and doctors predict that people in Libby will be diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses for years to come. If there is a silver lining in Libby, it will be that we as a society can learn from what happened here, and hopefully we won’t let it happen again.
On January 29, 2007, I attended Les Skramstad’s funeral. The day was cold, and just prior to the service a snowstorm had raged outside of the Libby Christian Church. But despite the weather, hundreds of Libby residents attended the funeral, and many others came from around the country. The number of people in attendance was a testament to how much had changed since we first began filming six years earlier. By that time, Les, who had once been ostracized by many in his town, was considered a hero to many for being willing to stand up and demand justice. Les’ death was the subject of several national news stories that week, and Senator Max Baucus eulogized him on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Les wasn’t a state or national dignitary, nor was he a corporate leader or a wealthy patron. He was a quiet, hardworking miner and timber worker from North Dakota who had moved to Libby as a young man in the 1950s. Why his death attracted so much local and national attention is in many ways the subject of our film.