Buba has spent his whole career — some four decades — documenting life in his half-forgotten blue-collar hometown. But now he's getting some long-overdue national-level notice, with a generous five-day retrospective at arguably the choicest cinematic venue in New York, if not the country.
Plan your road trip now: From Fri., June 8, through June 12, Anthology Film Archives will show all three of Buba's feature-length films, including his 1988 masterpiece, Lightning Over Braddock, and The Braddock Chronicles, a compendium of 12 brilliant short documentary films.
Anthology is little-known outside cinephile circles. However, for a single living filmmaker, getting booked for five days there is like scoring a week of solo shows at Carnegie Hall.
The retrospective has already drawn a half-page feature in this past Sunday's New York Times, including a color photo of Buba sharing a laugh with a neighbor in Braddock.
In a phone interview today, Buba, with typical modesty, called the Anthology screenings "pretty exciting." In his own interview with the Times, Anthology's film programmer, Jed Rapfogel, was considerably more effusive. He said that Buba's work — at once goofily comic, seriously political and deeply humanist — "has no parallel in American cinema."
Buba's work has been shown widely over the years, with one-person exhibitions at venues as notable as The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. And Lighting Over Braddock, for instance, won best film at the U.K.'s Birmingham International Film Festival. (That's Buba in the accompanying publicity still for Lightning, posing with Rankin's old Carrie Furnace.)
But Buba says that until the Anthology show, his only other extensive retrospective came three years ago, in Cologne, Germany. (Buba's fans include German master Werner Herzog, who became enamored of Buba's work while visiting Pittsburgh in the 1980s.)
Buba is broadly a documentarian, but his films are far from newsreels. Even the briefest of them is emotionally complex work; films like "Betty's Corner Cafè" (1976), a portrait of the denizens of a shot-and-a-beer bar, are humorous, bittersweet but rough-edged slices of life.
In Lightning Over Braddock, Buba went even further afield: The film is ostensibly about his relationship with the town he spent all those years documenting, but also includes fictional and fantasy elements like a production number at a ruined steel mill, complete with dancing and original music.
The Braddock Chronicles includes such Buba classics as 1974's "J. Roy: New and Used Cars" (about an irrespressible entrepreneur in the dying mill town); 1979's "Sweet Sal," about motor-mouthed hustler Sal Carullo; and "The Mill Hunk Herald" (1981), about the legendary steelworkers' newspaper.
Also on the program is No Pets (1994), Braddock's only straight fiction film, a drama about a working-class guy and his dog, based on a short story by Pittsburgh-based writer Jim Daniels. There's even George Romero's Martin (1976), a psychological horror film shot in Braddock — partly in the homes of Buba and his family members — and for which Buba handled the sound recording.
Most of the work will be shown on 16 mm film, the medium on which it was originated.
Buba credits the Anthology booking partly to a fellow Braddock native: artist Latoya Ruby Frazier, a young photographer who documents Braddock and whose work was recently featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Frazier and Buba have collaborated on several exhibitions recently, and Frazier has frequently praised his work.
While Anthology isn't showing anything more recent than Struggles in Steel, a full-length 1996 documentary about black millworkers, co-directed with Ray Henderson, Buba remains active. Recently he documented grassroots efforts to prevent UPMC's closure of its hospital in Braddock. He's also working on a sequel titled Thunder Over Braddock.
Lightning Over Braddock, incidentally, recently also screening at Light Industry, a Brooklyn microcinema.
I asked Buba if in the early days, he had expected his films would have such staying power.
"You hope to make stuff that's sort of timeless. You never really think it's actually going to happen," he says. "It's fun being  and still having your stuff out there."
"What's amazing to me is the hold ‘Sal' still has on people," he adds, meaning the wild and riveting character study "Sweet Sal." "Even with all the reality television … people are still fascinated by him."
Buba says the political edge in works like Lightning and "Shutdown" (1975), about a truckers' strike, resonate especially well in the age of the Occupy movement.
Buba and his wife, Jan, are heading to New York on Thursday and will spend the week for the screenings. They'll be joined not only by friends in New York, but also by a Pittsburgh contingent including longtime local friends and collaborators like cinematographer John Rice, Buba says.
Buba impishly suggests that other supporters from Pittsburgh "take the Megabus up and take the midnight bus back."