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‘Canaries in a Coalmine’: Dawson disasters become a documentary

Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, is finding stories with an Italian connection in New Mexico.


One century ago, the coal town of Dawson, in Colfax County, N.M., was a thriving community of 9,000 people. In 1913 and 1923 the mines were shocked by two accidents that killed 400 miners. Among them, it was the Italians and the Greeks who paid the highest price in lives lost.
What happened to the families hit by the terrible accident in 1913? And what happened to the families of the victims of the 1923 event, some of whom were the sons of the miners who had perished ten years earlier? Did they decide to stay in America despite the tremendous blow dealt by fate? Or did they return to Europe, to an ever-uncertain future and the misery from which they had escaped?

Two Italians who now live in Santa Fe have set out to find the answers. They’re Fulvio Ottaviano, awarded scriptwriter and director, and Claudio Ruben, producer and owner of Red Lotus Films International.
They’re working on “Canaries in a Coalmine”, a documentary featuring the stories of the miners who died in the 1913 and 1923 Dawson accidents – stories of fathers, sons and families before and after those tragedies. They have chosen three family stories, one Italian, one Greek and one Croatian, to represent the multicultural community that formed the thriving city of Dawson – today only a ghost town. Chinese, Mexican, American, German, Polish and Irish workers and miners also settled on that land that was still populated by the Navajos and Comanches.

Fulvio Ottaviano left the crowded and busy center of Rome for the more tranquil City Different. In his native Italy he was a broadcast, theater and radio professional. Then in 1996 he was awarded the David di Donatello (Italian equivalent of an Academy Award) as “best newcomer director”.
“I moved to Santa Fe because I was looking for a different framework, and because I knew that in New Mexico the independent cinema industry was moving forward,” he explains. Shortly after, he founded the Red Thunderbird Group.
As for Claudio Ruben, he’s from Milan, studied Political Science in Montreal and Law in London, before moving to the Southwest. “A shift in my life brought me here, and in 2001 I began my career in film,” he explains. Since 2001 Claudio has worked on several feature films, documentaries and television shows. In 2005, he launched the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, one of the few film festivals in North America to focus on spirituality, well-being, and religion. “Red Lotus aims to produce educational film projects that focus on issues that deeply affect people,” he says.


White crosses in Dawson cemetery remember the victims of the disasters

White crosses in Dawson cemetery remember the victims of the disasters

And so it is with “Canaries in a Coalmine”.  Based on the tragic events in Dawson, the documentary will explore the issue of the pursuit of happiness and the dramatic choices that individuals must make when faced with the unthinkable and the unexpected. The theme of the documentary is, therefore, the “American Dream” that enticed thousands of people between the 19th and 20th centuries to leave their homes and board transatlantic ships.
“Of course, the reality proved to be much different than the dream. Many of the poorer immigrants died at sea without ever seeing the shores of America,” Ruben and Ottaviano point out.
Even when safely disembarked, they faced uncertainty in the immigration stations where some were rejected. According to Ruben and Ottaviano’s sources, some of those unlucky ones preferred to drown themselves in the ocean rather than go back to Europe. Some luckier, arrived in Dawson to work in the mines and create a multicultural society. The documentary investigates three families – Italians from Modena’s Apennines, Greeks from Crete and Croatians from the west-Dalmatia coast – from the reasons that drove them to leave Europe, to the hopes they had for life in the “New World”, to what they actually found once in America. The second part of the documentary focuses on the post-tragedy stories of those who stayed in America and those who, on the contrary, made another transatlantic crossing – eastward, this time.
“Our work is inspired by Lee Masters’ ‘Spoon River Anthology’,” Ruben and Ottaviano explain. “We want to recreate the life of the early 1900s in Dawson as it was, and allow those people to tell their own stories, with honesty and irony.”

“Canaries in a Coalmine” is still a work-in-progress. The duo is currently looking for sponsorship to finance the filming and editing, but they’re quite confident they can close the deal and start shooting soon. Once filming starts, the release of the documentary will be in  a year.
It’s clear that “Canaries in a Coalmine” is more than the story of a specific 20th century tragedy. “As far back as we can remember, the history of humanity on this planet is one of migration. Even today the story is all too familiar. Whether they’re Syrians crossing into Jordan or Iraq seeking refuge from the civil war, or they’re boatloads of Africans sailing for the shores of Southern Italy to escape poverty and political instability, the story is the same. The story of Dawson’s immigrants is, after all, a universal story” the duo say.

Ruben and Ottaviano would appreciate any witness, material or story about Dawson, the life in the coal mine and the accidents; they’ll be pleased to be contacted at the following addresses:
Claudio Ruben (505) 670-7678
Fulvio Ottaviano (505) 603-2839



The historic photos are courtesy of the Dawson New Mexico Association

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