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Labour films on the world screen – Tom Zaniello

August 21, 2016

As I think back on the last four years of the Labour Film Festivals in London and now Liverpool (North West), I am struck by the big generalizations we often turn to while discussing the labour and related films on offer. Globalization has probably the term been around the longest, denoting the rapid export of capitol around the world to take advantage of low-paying workers in the Third World as well as the changes in transportation (container ships), technology (digitalization) and control (deregulation and privatization).

Two of our films explore the drive for profits in this global market. ‘Daughters of a Lesser God’ explores the bangle makers of Hyderabad in Pakistan where the owners use the very homes of their workers as unsafe ‘factories’. In ‘The 33’ miners of gold and copper take incredible risks to penetrate the earth to unbelievable depths, but the owners do not take sufficient precautions for their health and safety.

Similarly our classic selection ‘Silkwood’ shows how vulnerable the workers are to nuclear contamination and company manipulation in a highly mechanized and organized industry. The question of the underclass or the unorganized or the precariat has arisen in past festival films as well. Two of our films dramatize these marginal workers and cast off’s of the working class in very different ways. In ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (screening at the North West labour Film Fest), Ken Loach explores a couple who have to fight every minute to maintain their dignity in the face of a bureaucracy that thinks nothing of assigning them a London hostel for the homeless 300 miles away. The young man in ‘7 Chinese Brothers’ pretends not to be overly concerned about his drift from one low-paying service job to the other but it is clear that there is a cost, again to his dignity not to mention his sheer survival. A third issue, on all of our minds is the migrant and refugee situation, now reaching worldwide dimensions. Only one of our films ‘The Judgment’ directly addresses this, but its intensity is daunting as we follow a Bulgarian ex-army man who used to patrol a border to keep Bulgarians fleeing the Soviet bloc in now finds himself desperate enough to help Syrians navigate a dangerous mountain pass to escape, most likely, to western Europe (eventually). A labour film festival wouldn’t be worth its digital projector if it didn’t look at the dignity and dedication of the working class. ‘The Operator’ portrays a woman handling an emergency call from a distraught woman caught with her child in building on fire. ‘The Operator’ handles this life and death situation with skill and empathy.

The Scots poet Robert Fullerton in the film ‘Mining Poems or Odes’ offers a clever analogy between welding and poem-making worth of our attention and respect.

Two of our films do not fit easily into any of the categories I have covered so far but both offer what might be called ‘the big (cinematic) picture’. ‘Trumbo’ a historical drama of politics during the right-wing American anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s. A progressive screenwriter, very successful, who happens to be a Communist, incurs the wrath of the McCarthyites who come down on him relentlessly. It is not likely that anyone in the establishment can come down hard on Michael Moore, because he would turn them upside down first. ‘Where to Invade Next’ is his satire on what too many wayward and dogmatic Americans think they can do without e.g.,  a good health-care system, access to abortion, workers’ paid holidays, and female leadership at the top. (Well, we’ll see on November 8th if the USA joins the UK in this category! (Hilary). I hope to see you at many of these films and the Q&A sessions so that we can explore these crucial issues and developments in our world.

Tom Zaniello

Author ‘Union Maids, Reds & Riff Raff’ ‘The cinema of Globalization