The working class is seldom represented in Hollywood films, and rarely shown in a positive light. Union struggles are even scarcer on the silver screen.
You have to assume that, as the film industry rewrites history, they’re not going to give the workers center stage. That’s why it’s essential we support independent films, those written, directed and produced by progressive artists who are struggling to put the workers’ story on the big screen.
At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, there were at least four outstanding examples of films focusing on working class issues.
The cinematic champion of the working class, Ken Loach, returns to his homeland with a masterful essay on the effects of privatization. This time, in The Navigators, Loach focuses on the plight of British rail workers in their attempts to survive the devastating blows of downsizing.
The script is written by first-time writer, Rob Dawber, a railworker who approached Loach with the film idea based on his own personal experiences.
Dawber had contracted cancer while working with asbestos on the railways. He had established in court that his employers were responsible, but it was a bittersweet ending when Dawber died of cancer, just after seeing the final cut of the film.
Despite the tragic themes of the film, Loach prefers to term it a social comedy, actually casting stand-up comedians and singers in most of the main roles.
The amazing camaraderie expressed on the screen that Loach feels was essential for acceptance of the story, was the result of Loach’s remarkable ability to draw great performances from even the non-professional actors.
Although his style of filmmaking is realistic and appears at times improvisational, his films are always scripted and rehearsed.
The Navigators follows the lives of several railworkers from the day they get notice that the public company is going to privatize in order to compete in the new marketplace. Their foreman is asked what’s in the new contract and he informs them that even that’s been changed – it’s now called a ‘mission statement.’
They’re told they can either accept a payoff (redundancy cash) or work for the new company under the new rules. Working conditions degenerate to such a level that many of them choose a buy-out and take their chances working freelance for other private companies that appear to be offering higher wages.
It isn’t long before they discover that other workers are traveling from long distances to fight for these few jobs, and, once hired, realize that the higher salary doesn’t include all the accustomed benefits that union workers had fought for.
Now they have to buy their own uniforms and tools, work longer hours with fewer breaks, and now they have no health insurance coverage. Family relations are strained, with some workers divorcing, others taking on a second job, while others just give up under the grueling conditions.
Safety standards are drastically reduced and a tragic accident occurs when one of the railworkers attempts to repair a rail on a rainy night.
The brutal effects of privatization are spelled out clearly in this dramatic portrayal of workers pressed to their limits. Ken Loach in his entire career, has yet to make a bad film, one not worth seeing.
His award-winning films include Bread and Roses, recently filmed in Los Angeles about the successful janitors strike; Riff Raff, a classic examination of British construction workers; Ladybird, Ladybird, a story of the cruel treatment of a mother whose children are taken by the State; Hidden Agenda, a rare British film praising the Irish struggle for independence.
On and on, every film by Loach adds another work of art to the growing collection of fine working class cinema. Two documentaries from different corners of the world deal with working class issues.
Facing the Music (from Australia demonstrates the need for workers to organize and fight for better working conditions. Ann Boyd, chair of the music department at Sydney University, is also an acclaimed classical composer.
The school is faced with massive cutbacks, and Boyd attends her first strike-planning meeting. She is the sole opponent and finds herself as a scab, not clearly aware of the power of unity.
After her department is forced to the bare bones, her militancy blooms and her lectures start taking on the tone of revolution.
The liberation of Beethoven’s music takes on new meaning. She becomes a staunch picketer, joining the rotating strikers, convincing faculty and students of the value of struggle. Her orchestras and choir provide a musical soundtrack to her growing awareness that publicly funded education is being threatened by privatization.
The film is a passionate study of the effects of downsizing in education, and the personal struggles of one teacher who gradually learns the relationship between art and politics.
Westray is a documentary from Nova Scotia, Canada. It doesn’t deal directly with the tragic accident that killed 26 coalminers on May 9, 1992. Rather it delves into the shattered lives of the survivors, and exposes the responsibility of the greedy mining corporation and its failure to provide safe working conditions.
Compassionate inquiries of the widows offer re-creations of the good times prior to the disaster. In their desperation, to secure a stable job in the dwindling market, miners signed on for work without a union, knowing the company’s reputation for negligence and greed. By re-opening a proven unsafe mine, and failing to comply with even minimum safety standards, the Westray Mining Company was headed for disaster.
The film creatively brings the memory of the miners to life, by using archival footage, reenactments and interviews. The futile attempt by the widows to get justice in the courts, the failed attempts to unionize the mine prior to the accident, and the guilt of the mine owners are clearly drawn in this compelling reminder of corporate greed. L’emploi Du Temps (Time Out) a big hit from France, addresses the issue of downsizing from a totally different angle.
The film is directed by Laurent Cantet as a taut psychological thriller. An ordinary worker, with all the trappings of a well-balanced family life, all of a sudden finds himself out of a job. Known by all his friends and family as a responsible breadwinner, Vincent carries on as if he is still gainfully employed. He calls home from a remote parking lot, pretending he is still at work.
He concocts fantastic stories in order to get loans from his father in law and close friends. He stays away from home for long stretches, explaining he has assignments out of town.
The scam cannot continue forever, and the heavy psychological toll exacted on this troubled worker is gradually revealed as the film rolls towards an unpredictable ending. The tragic effects of corporate mergers and downsizing are exposed in this engrossing human drama of one unfortunate soul.
Multiply this by tens of thousands of workers having to deal with similar situations, and the effects are devastating. As the class struggle advances, cinema plays a powerful role.
Many other films shown at the Toronto Film Festival have relevance to these issues. In my next column I’ll examine the world of Peter Watkins and his attempt to bring to life the events and spirit of the Paris Commune.
(E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)