McKeesport history in focus

Documentary filmmaker aims to tell town's story through the eyes of its residents

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Capturing the human side of McKeesport's history will be a major focus of a work in progress by documentary filmmaker Michael Wilson.

The film has a working title of "McKeesport," but Mr. Wilson says that could change before it is released in selected theaters late this year or early next year. It will look primarily at the town's history over the past two and a half decades, examining the devastating effect the loss of the steel industry has had on the economy and efforts by local government to recover.

Mr. Wilson, 31, of Minneapolis, who directed the documentary "Michael Moore Hates America" in 2004, said his objective since arriving in McKeesport last month has been to tell the town's story through the joy and tears of its residents.

Mr. Wilson, and a three-member production crew have ridden with police, flown in a helicopter, attended hours and hours of town meetings and events and have conducted dozens of interviews with everyone from Mayor Jim Brewster to members of the city's homeless population.

"There are just these fascinating characters who are real people, but from the storyteller perspective, I look at them as characters in the story," he said, noting that the crew has had no trouble finding stories.

"When you bring a camera into a situation, things just emerge. If you're in the right place at the right time and you connect with the right people, it's fascinating," he said.

The film is financially backed by renowned philanthropist and former McKeesport resident Arthur Rupe--who is said to have commissioned the project after returning to McKeesport from California for his 50th high school graduation reunion and being shocked at how the town had changed over the years.

It is being produced by the American Film Renaissance institute.

The film should offer more than just accounts of personal tragedy and triumph; Mr. Wilson said political and economic forces will also be examined.

A self-described libertarian, Mr. Wilson said his experience in McKeesport has made him question his own political views.

"One of the things that concerned me about the town was that the government is stepping in and doing this top-down development and that, to me, seems wrong. I believe the government should be involved in as little as possible.

"But I think there is a point that you get to in a city like McKeesport, where, if that doesn't happen, the city is doomed,'' he said.

"They're kind of doing it the right way," he added. "They're building infrastructure here ... but they're also giving business big tax breaks," he said.

Mr. Wilson said his goal in McKeesport is to create a film that is apolitical and that the current project is very much unlike the film "Michael Moore Hates America."

Viewed by some as a criticism of Moore for his political views, Mr. Wilson said the actual intent of that film was to examine honesty and integrity in filmmaking. He describes the Moore film as portraying America as a place of hope.

The McKeesport film, when complete, will be a mix of themes including darkness, sadness and hope, he said.

Mr. Wilson, the project's associate producer, Jamie Vincent, and director of photography, Mike Schaubach, have been living in an apartment at the Waterfront in Homestead during shooting.

Audio assistant for the documentary, Andy Halliwell, is from Upper St. Clair. Mr. Halliwell, 30, said working on the film has opened his eyes.

"I wouldn't have thought about this place a few weeks ago the way I think about it now," he said.

Before, he said, he associated the city with a tough high school football program and problems with crime.

Now, he said, he appreciates its history as a boom town and efforts to revitalize. "It's working itself back up into a place people can appreciate."

Producers hope to release the documentary at a major film festival like Sundance. Mr. Wilson, whose next work is a documentary about boxing, said he would like to see the McKeesport movie screened at the Pittsburgh Film Festival as well.

Eric Slagle is a freelance writer.


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