Home Video Hovel- An Injury to One
The official description on IMDB.com of Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (newly available on DVD) says that the film is an “experimental” documentary. Summing it up as such falls somewhere between misleading and just plain ignorant. It’s true that some of the choices of imagery are, at best, impressionistic. The repeated shots of a revolver being loaded and fired, for example, are not specifically sourced from or dramatizations of the events recounted in the film, though they are thematically related to the narration that accompanies them. Still, calling it experimental evokes an abstracted, non-linear telling of a story. This, rather, is one of the most straightforward documentaries in memory.
An Injury to One is an account of Butte, Montana in the early 20th century. Specifically, the film is concerned with the copper mines, those who owned them and those who worked in them. After laying out the history of said, the narrative turns the majority of its focus toward the arrival and subsequent murder of Frank Little, a union organizer. These events are heartbreaking, infuriating and possibly even galvanizing, which is, of course, the intended effect of any propaganda.
In contrast to many impressionistic films, Injury avoids coming across as poetic or lyrical in any way. In fact, instead of playing the pro-union folk songs of the time, it simply places the lyrics on the screen. This is a crisp and clear film, direct in its storytelling and its message. Wilkerson, in serving as his own narrator, is perhaps the real star of the film and its most effective tool. His voice is commanding and confident without ever betraying any of the indignation that must have inspired the project in the first place.
Where the film does flirt with trouble, though, is on the occasions where that narration tips its hand and makes its agenda too clear. The events are laid out in such a direct and factual way that the few points at which the anti-capitalist stance of the filmmaker becomes explicit rather than implicit are glaring in comparison. It’s when we feel Wilkerson verbally pushing us in the direction of his point instead of leading us there that the spell is temporarily broken.
An Injury to One was made in 2002 but is just now getting its DVD release. It’s a fitting time for that, given that this year, we saw unions in Wisconsin lose much of their power to collectively bargain. Despite its occasional heavy-handedness, this documentary is a powerful reminder of how difficult and how necessary the fight for unions in this country was. It’s also a much-needed warning of what could happen again if we forget.