Work in capitalism: The best eye-opening documentaries (1)

Unless there is a new, global working class consciousness, underprivileged classes (increasingly extended) are doomed to be crushed by the sheer destructive power of capitalism. With this post we begin an overview of documentary and fiction films that can help to build up, through denunciation and example, that conscience and solidarity more needed than ever,

Workingman’s death (Michael Glawogger, Austria, Germany, Indonesia, France, 2005)


Synopsis: Devastating overview of soul-destroying jobs in different parts of the world, placed out of any institution and law, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. People living outside any structured labour system, and that risk their lives and health each day in order just to scraping a living. Five harrowing examples: Ukranian miners from the Donbass region that creep in illegal coal mines on the bring of collapsing and burying them; Indonesian carriers in Kawah Ijen island that first take out sulphur from an active volcano and afterwards carry it on their shoulders, while amused tourists take pictures of them; Nigerian slaughtermen in Port Harcourt bathed in slayed goat and ox blood that roast their flesh with the fire from burning tyres, in an unhealthy black smoke; in the ship cemetery in Gaddani, Pakistan, members of the Pashtun group scrap huge derelict vessels to recover steel plates; in China, steel workers see the end of their trade as economy changes from planned to market. All of them are dehumanazing manual works that exist in the current world, and that show the continued existence of slavery in this century.

Relevance: The film combines calm denunciation with cinematic art. We see the hard existence of these destitute workers through well-crafted shots and sequences. A warning and a reminder concerning the situation of millions of workers. Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger (who died in Liberia in 2014) wanted to capture a global gallery of the outcast of this world, with “Workingman’s Death”, with “Megacities” (the daily survival in big cities like Mumbai, New York, Moscow and Mexico City) or “Whore’s Glory” (the life of prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico).

Roger & me (Michael Moore, USA, 1989)


Synopsis: Documentary about the General Motors automobile plant closing in Flint, Michigan, a city that depended absolutely on this factory and that due to the closure lost 30.000 job posts. The film shows the filmmaker’s fruitless attempts to interview General Motors president, Roger Smith, and to analyze with him the crushing effects of the closure for the city. The film makes a sharp contrast between the opulent life of the GM executives and the misery in which the unemployed workers are left, many of them evicted from their homes. An instructive study case about the practices of capitalism in its neoliberal version: offshoring (the plant is transferred to Mexico, where workers are deprived of  labour rights and earn starvation wages), lack of accountability with regard to labour, dismantling of the trade-union system.

Relevance: The first and best film by Michael Moore, before becoming a celebrity and exploiting his performances of egocentric, overwhelming showman. Here, his filming style is still new, and traits such as irony and the constant presence of the filmmaker are effective and convincing. It’s a style that would still work in “Bowling For Columbine” (2002) and “Fahrenheit 11/9” (2004), and that afterwards would result self-parodying. In “Roger & Me”, Moore managed to make an original film of denunciation, that instructs about the tearing of the social fabric in his home town.


Life and Debt (Stephanie Black, USA, 2003)


Synopsis: Beautiful and terrible film about the effects of neoliberal globalization in Jamaica. We see the startling contrast between the luxury American tourists enjoy in their hotel in Kingston and the difficult survival of the Jamaicans, whose working activity and economic organization are determined by decisions of executives of World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United States taken very far from the Caribbean island. This cinematographic documentary shows Jamaicans’ real life, how it has deteriorated by irresponsible neoliberal economic policies based on the savage extraction of raw materials and the exploitation of human beings. At the same time, despite all the pauperisation, the film manages to capture the pristine beauty of the island and its inhabitants.

Relevance: This original combination of archive images, interviews, reggae music and reading of literary fragments creates an intense denunciation of neoliberal practices and their effects on real people; at the same time, it’s a vindication of human dignity and a call to resistance. Stephanie Black is a filmmaker committed to workers’ rights. In “H-2 Worker” (1990), that gained the Jury Prize in Sundance, denounced the subhuman conditions suffered by the seasonal immigrant Caribbean workers in the cane industry in Florida. “Life and debt” could be just a study-case, but it is too a great film that, with few variations, can be applied to many other countries from the Third World (what the economists’ cynical jargon calls “developing countries”).


Machines (Rahul Jain, India, 2016)


Synopsis: Daunting descent to the underworld of a textile factory in Gujarat, in North-western India, where the cheap clothes for the first world are made. This factory represents many more from Western India, where the scenary and the conditions are like the ones we see here. Claustrophobic, hermetic, unhealthy, dark spaces, with the air saturated of toxic smoke emanated from dye chemicals. Tied to looms, sleepy teenagers, youths and mature men work twelve hours a day for starvation wages: many of them go into debt in order to pay the train ticket to travel from rural areas to the urban factories. The brutal working conditions dehumanize the workers, to the point of turning them into appendixes of machines. Landless peasants join the files of workers without rights nor holydays. Few well selected interviews to workers convey what happens here: employers oppression without any constraint from the State, lack of trade-union reply due to the killing of their leaders, no viable alternative to survive out of the factory.

Relevance: With an excellent cinematography (it gained the Price of the best documentary photography in Sundance), the film transfers a feeling of anguish without loosing artistic dignity. We roam labyrinthic corridors and stagnant rooms, and we absorb the rhythm of production through the monotonous noises from the machines. This great debut of Rahul Jain give voice and faces to some of the more sorely afflicted slaves in the twenty-first century.


The Take (Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, Canada, 2004)


Synopsis: In yet another of the recurring economic crisis (this one, from 2001) suffered by the ill-treated Argentine people, with factory closures of every kind, Buenos Aires automobile plant workers decide to take control of it when the owner gets rid of it and of them. Thirty workers resist to being made irrelevant and organize themselves as a cooperative in order to self-manage this plant placed in the outskirts of the Argentine capital. With their brave, defiant action, in addition to fighting for their life, they question neoliberal ideology and policies, where the human factor is not a part of the equation. The reconstruction from the ruins of capitalism takes place also in other Argentine factories, in a wave of labour empowerment. It isn’t easy because they have to face the establishment hostility and violence (politicians, businessmen, judges, police), defended by ultra neoliberal president Carlos Menem. But labour resistance and disobedience are the only escape route from savage capitalism.

Relevance: Avi Lewis, a committed Canadian journalist, has had the good sense to show in a respectful manner the hard lives of the workers and to allow them to speak for themselves, without imposing his directorial viewpoint (a very different approach from that of a Michael Moore, for instance). With a screenply by the well-known Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein (“No logo”, “The Shock Doctrine”), “The Take” is a manifesto for workers’ empowerment in the twenty-first century.

Next instalment: Work in capitalism: The best eye-opening documentaries (2)

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