“Chair-Making, Pole-Dancing, Coal-Mining, Cart-Pushing: Films On Work & Labor” | A Look Back

    In early 2010, shortly after being tapped to curate a Thematic Program that examined the human relationship to work for the 13th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, prolific filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert shared:

    “We are excited by the possibilities of putting together a dynamic, international, surprising collection of films, with a healthy disregard for what might traditionally be called a ‘labor documentary’…  We are interested in films about labor itself, the actual work people do. Even more, we are drawn to films that investigate how one’s labor affects one’s whole life.”

    Over a decade later, Chair-Making, Pole-Dancing, Coal-Mining, Cart-Pushing: Films On Work & Labor, Bognar and Reichert’s insightful collection of 18 films, contains deeply impactful stories and perspectives that remain relevant to today.


    Chairmaker (dir. Rick DiClemente)


    Come spend time with Dewey Thompson at his well-worn home nestled in the mountains of Sugarloaf Hollow, Kentucky. For decades, Dewey has made chairs, and in this short film, we watch as he transforms a tree he swiftly felled into a sturdy rocking chair. He hews, notches, and weaves with rhythmic skill as he shares stories about a lifetime spent in Appalachia. At 80, Dewey isn’t one to retire: “If I ain’t workin’ on one, I ain’t satisfied.” One of the earliest films produced by Appalshop, this is a straightforward portrait of a man and his craft.


    China Blue (dir. Micha X. Peled)

    Jasmine, a 16-year-old Chinese peasant, moves from the rural Sichuan province to the industrial city of Shaxi and finds work at the Lifeng blue jean factory. Jasmine, her co-workers, and Mr. Lam, the factory owner, allow the filmmaker extraordinary access into their lives. Their interwoven stories provide a rare and profound perspective on the current state of Chinese labor, its impact on the global economy, as well as the globalized culture it produces.


    Coal Miner: Frank Jackson (dir. Ben Zickafoose)

    From the Appalshop archive comes this black-and-white piece of history that provides a rare and authentic look at coal miners in the early 1970s. The film features Frank Jackson, who has spent his life in the mines and speaks unapologetically of unions, prejudice, and the coal-mining way of life. Stark and simple, this 12-minute film does what history books can’t—it captures the deep mountain accents of the black-faced laborers and takes you down into the dark claustrophobic caverns where they spent their days.


    The Global Assembly Line (dir. Lorraine W. Gray)

    Nearly a decade before NAFTA’s passage, filmmaker Lorraine W. Gray takes us to the maquiladoras of Juarez, Mexico, to the electronics factories of an export-processing zone in the Philippines, and to shuttered plants in Eastern Tennessee, paying particular attention to how the outsourcing of labor from the U.S. has influenced the lives of young women in the Global South. The visually rich film juxtaposes serious and cheery American businessmen with the dehumanizing conditions created by their decisions and actions, and with the people who suffer as a result of them. In one particularly pointed sequence, a development consultant says that U.S. factories abroad will provide foreign workers with “a better understanding of who we are and what we’re all about.” Such platitudes do little to mask the exploitation at the core of the global assembly line, then and now. A quarter-century after it was made, this prescient film reminds us that when we internationalize work, we tend to lose sight of the workers.


    H-2 Worker (dir. Stephanie Black)

    Each year thousands of Jamaicans temporarily immigrate to Florida to cut sugar cane by hand, work that is so dangerous and poorly paid that Americans won’t do it. But it offers more money than Jamaicans can hope to make at home, so, with H-2 visas for temporary and seasonal work, they crowd into dismal camp barracks, where for six months they are virtually held prisoner on a modern version of a plantation. Poorly fed and improperly treated for their inevitable injuries, working long, back-breaking hours, the men know that if they revolt in even the smallest way they risk being deported, and instantly replaced. Exposing a previously hidden system of indentured servitude through stunning, covertly shot 16mm footage, H-2 Worker received Sundance’s 1990 Grand Jury Award. The film is a shocking reminder of the travesties perpetuated on American soil, in this case with the help of the U.S. government’s H-2 program, in the name of Profit.


    Hammer and Flame (dir. Vaughan Pilikian)

    Set on the coast of Northern India, this film captures an unimaginable world: a place where ships come to die. Equipped with only the simplest of tools, men beat and burn away at once-unbreakable, monstrous vessels, waiting for a consequence that rarely ever comes. In rhythmic detail, the film conveys the struggle of man against steel, leaving one to contemplate the rote battle these individuals face day after day. 


    An Injury to One (dir. Travis Wilkerson)

    Dashiell Hammett, Anaconda Cooper, the American Union Movement, Butte, Montana and the Superfund Toxic Waste program all have a role in this thoroughly modern, engaging exploration of official history. Director Travis Wilkerson’s approach to the content forces the viewer to think and see differently. The haunting use of music and text on screen, the simple, lingering, un-insistent cinematography continue to probe and prod well after the final fade.


    John and Jane (dir. Ashim Ahluwalia)

    John and Jane is a fascinating look at call centers in Mumbai and at the desires, fantasies, and hardships of the people who answer your outsourced calls. Taking on American names like Nicky, Naomi, and Glen, these white-collar night shift workers sell everything from insurance to pancake molds and troubleshoot the problems of frustrated customers. Shot in rich 35mm without lighting, and often without permission, the film captures the unnerving sense of dislocation that pervades these workers’ lives. Plucked from their own culture and their families, the phone agents are drilled in American popular culture and pronunciation, the lessons insidiously morphing into alternate realities as young Indians become John and Jane, complete with American-sized dreams of riches and success. Though they return to their cramped Indian homes at the end of their shifts, their imaginations cling to America. The story masterfully weaves among six characters in a surreal and disturbing meditation on the pursuit of happiness, American-style, and the perils of globalization. 


    Justice in the Coalfields (dir. Anne Lewis)

    When the Pittston Coal Company in Virginia terminated the medical benefits of pensioners, widows, and disabled miners in 1988, the entire coalmining community was outraged. The United Mine Workers of America called a strike and more than 1,700 miners walked out. Filmmaker Anne Lewis follows the ten-month dispute as it moves from the picket line to civil disobedience, capturing vivid footage of the miners and their families blocking the entrance to the mine and later taking over the company and being dragged away by state troopers. Providing commentary are voices from all sides—striking miners, “replacement workers” who took their place, the coal company president, a federal judge, a public interest lawyer. One of the most important labor struggles since the 1950s, the Pittston strike revealed the extent to which the law stripped unions of their bargaining power. All in all there were 4,000 arrests and $64 million in injunctions and fines against the UMWA, prompting one miner to observe, “We have plenty of law; we have no justice.”


    Live Nude Girls UNITE! (dirs. Vicky Funari, Julia Query)

    Feminists have long argued over whether the sex industry is empowering or degrading. Both sides agree, however, that sex workers deserve equal and civil rights. To supplement her income as a stand-up comic, Julie Query becomes an exotic peepshow dancer at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, where she runs up against management’s unfair practices of racial discrimination, firing workers for not “having fun,” refusing to offer sick days. So she and her co-workers set out to form the only strippers’ union in the United States. In one of the more surprising twists to this riveting story, Query and her mother, a well-known public health advocate for streetwalkers who does not know her daughter is a stripper, both turn up to speak at the same conference on prostitution, and the confrontation that ensues is intense. But the real drama in this quirky, impassioned, funny documentary is in the fearsome battle that a diverse group of women—intelligent, tough, hard-working, independent—wage for their rights.


    Man Push Cart (dir. Ramin Bahrani)

    An independent fiction film that has won accolades for its authenticity and quintessential New York feel, Man Push Cart tells the story of Ahmad, a handsome rock star in his native Pakistan until circumstances land him in New York City selling coffee out of a silver pushcart. Now his life feels achingly routine and without hope as he wakes up before dawn each day and hauls his heavy cart through Manhattan traffic to his regular corner, where he sells coffee and bagels to the haves of the world. Ahmad Razvi gives a subtle performance as the title character, playing him with shy dignity as he strains to reclaim his life amid obstacles of friendship, false promise, and deceit. There is as much mystery at the end of this film as there is at the beginning. But Ahmad has become so real he is almost tangible. 


    Morristown: In the Air and Sun (dir. Anne Lewis)

    There is a seeming paradox in the flow of Mexican labor to the U.S.: as manufacturing jobs move south and Americans lose jobs, more and more Mexican workers move north in search of work. This complex issue is writ small in Morristown, Tennessee, where American displaced workers and Mexican immigrants live in uneasy proximity. Humanizing—and muddying—the extreme viewpoints on both sides of the immigration and free-trade debates, this film shows sympathy for all caught up in the drive for globalization. Filmmaker Anne Lewis takes us to the fields and factory floors where Mexicans work at “jobs that Americans won’t do,” and presents their struggles to organize. We see that the links between Morristown and Mexico are being strengthened, sometimes in surprising ways, by the global economy and multinational corporations that influence the flow of labor and capital. The way the inhabitants of both places live and work (or don’t) is a testament to how the dislocating effects of so-called free-trade agreements have over the past two decades cemented into place a permanent, migratory underclass within our borders, and within Mexico’s.


    The Sixth Section (dir. Alex Rivera)

    The small town of Boquerón is located on a dusty road in southern Mexico and is comprised of five neighborhoods, or sections. But perhaps its most prominent citizens live more than 3,000 miles north in Newburgh, New York—in the so-called sixth section. “Grupo Unión” started as a gathering of immigrant men in search of friendship and a connection to their culture as they labored in small jobs far from home. But it turned into a far more enterprising endeavor. Working long hours to earn extra money, the members huddle in coats in their makeshift tent every Saturday evening to plan philanthropic projects for their hometown, such as a 2,000-seat baseball stadium and a new well. Challenging widely-held assumptions about disempowered immigrants, Grupo Union’s unique contributions are testament to the tremendous potential for immigrant communities to effect social change across borders.


    The Target Shoots First (dir. Christopher Wilcha)

    Fresh out of college, Chris Wilcha got a job in an entry level gig as assistant marketing guy at Columbia House Records, bringing along his video-cam for the duration. Back then, they needed somebody to explain the new-fangled “alternative” music to the suits on the 19th floor. One witnesses the inter-floor tensions between the 19th floor suits and the 17th floor “creatives” of writers and artists, with Chris acting as mediator. Later, Chris triumphs when he publishes the subversive zine-based, alternative music catalogue—still part of the mother catalogue after all. But the suits love it for being so subversive and frisky and counter culture. Carpal tunnel syndrome, office Christmas parties—this is his story.


    Taylor Chain (Part One) (dirs. Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn)

    Taylor Chain (Part One) chronicles the seven-week strike of the family-owned Taylor Chain company in Indiana in the 1970s. The compelling 16mm footage, which is nearly as tactile and gritty as the strike itself, captures picket line confrontations, large, tumultuous union meetings, and fraught negotiations between union representatives and company executives. Tensions run high within the union itself as well as at the negotiating table. As with all movements, there are cracks at the seams of this one, but this remarkable inside view of a union in action reminds us of what the workers at Taylor Chain already know: only together can they really make a difference. The film also preserves a slice of industrial American life that would otherwise be lost—the Taylor Chain plant eventually closed in the 1980s, when the shift away from manufacturing industries toward technology and service industries profoundly altered the landscape for American labor.


    Los Trabajadores (The Workers) (dir. Heather Courtney)

    In 1999 Money magazine ranked Austin, Texas, as the second-best place to live in America, and the building boom was at an all time high. But the workers filling critical construction jobs were most often day laborers, illegal immigrants from Mexico forced to leave their families across the border in order to provide basic necessities. Knowing they will have a different boss each day and unsure of their pay, they line up at five each morning at the day labor depot for a chance at a day’s work. Filmmaker Heather Courtney follows two immigrants, Juan and Ramón, for a year, and their stories make deeply personal one of the intractable political issues of our times. When the depot moves into a residential neighborhood, these needed but unwanted men find themselves in the midst of a town battle that reveals the fissures in our multicultural society. As with all immigration issues, it’s a complex problem with no easy answers that affects lots of decent people.


    The Uprising of ’34 (dirs. George Stoney, Judith Helfand)

    On Labor Day 1934, hundreds of thousands of Southern cotton mill workers walked off the job in what would become the largest single-industry strike in the history of the United States. But until the making of this film, the General Textile Strike and its violent suppression—seven strikers were killed—were largely unknown. Filmmakers George Stoney, Judith Helfand, and Susanne Rostock spent nearly six years tracking down primary source materials and surviving strikers in the South not only to reconstruct the historic event but also to examine its inconceivable disappearance from the collective conscience. Through a combination of rare archival footage and contemporary interviews, their film probes the working conditions that led to the strike, the events of the strike itself, and the violence and intimidation whose lasting legacy could be felt even 60 years later. For many of the interviewees, The Uprising of ‘34 provided their first opportunity to speak about the long-suppressed events—demonstrating once again the power of documentary film to recover the collective history so vital to our democracy.


    The Wobblies (dirs. Stewart Bird, Deborah Shaffer)

    The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, billed itself as “One Big Union,” and welcomed all workers, regardless of their trade, gender, or race. Wobblies, as they were known, came from textile mills, copper mines, logging camps, and everywhere in between, and together generated more controversy, perhaps, than any other organized-labor group in U.S. history. Made in 1979, The Wobblies is enriched by the reminiscences of IWW members, who, in their eighties and nineties, are lucid and lively on the subject of the union’s heyday during the 1910s. Intercut with remarkable archival footage, their accounts of textile strikes, pitched battles over free-speech rights, lumberjack work stoppages, and the methods and theories of industrial sabotage are set to the sounds of rousing music straight from the “little red songbook.”