Tag Archives: work

Call + Response

This documentary focuses on the important social issue of human trafficking. Its specific emphasis is upon sex trafficking, and features lots of disturbing stories and statistics, delivered via a slick production. However, the documentary’s biggest problems are systemic and fatal: namely, its reformist orientation toward the subject matter and the resulting naiveté of the directorship.

Even though it purports to be about anti-trafficking movements, no actual social movement activities are even depicted—even simple protest is absent. The director laughably references so-called “open source” protest, as if previous social protest is irrelevant, or that something has dramatically shifted in real-world power relations to justify such a new term. It presumes that people can “just get involved” and “make a difference” by “educating themselves” and clicking some buttons. Unfortunately, the naiveté only gets worse.

If there is a central root cause to the modern, global “slave trade”, it is modern capitalism, just as mercantilist capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy was the cause of post-medieval era African slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Amazingly, though the film claims to be so concerned with slavery, it does not mention—even once—this major institution (capitalism) that drives the “trade”. Sure, “profit” is mentioned a few times (which heads in the right direction), but in a post-2008 financial crisis era and post-Occupy Wall Street, this oversight is not so much unfortunate or tragic, as it reveals the superficiality of the film’s analysis. This significance reflects a story told about Murray Bookchin, the famous eco-anarchist. After hearing endless testimony of people at a city hall meeting, railing against “economic injustice”, Bookchin rose to his feet to thunder “in my day, we called it capitalism”. That plain-spoken-ness is absent here in this documentary, and instead we’re awash in abstractions and manipulative, heart-tugging stories lacking context.

The sex trade in Asia is very sad, but horribly de-contextualized. Amazingly, there is not a single mention of patriarchy. How are people to understand something if it is not explained systematically, in plain language? No one in the film bothers to hypothesize or ruminate about just how different the US and Europe were (or were not) in their slavery practices 150 years ago. “The same shit, different century”, would be a simple conclusion to draw. But, now the US has “modernized” and is “civilized”. Of course, the average American (or even most History majors in college) know zilch about historic slaveries, chattel slavery in the US south, the US civil War, etc. (Instead, most usually believe mis-truths about all these subjects.) This raises the concern that “human trafficking” is portrayed as such a serious issue now simply because most of the people trafficked do not originate in the West. This leads to a serious case of Orientalism (i.e., Westerners depict the “East” in stereotyped, incomplete, racist, and warped ways). This problem may even over-shadow the capitalist-gorilla-in-the-living-room problem. Nearly all the stories are about Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe—although “slavery” still occurs in North America and Western Europe. Hearing terrible stories of how people treat their own kind in other countries serves to “other” people outside the West. “Wow, people in those poor countries are monsters. And the poor girls and women who live there… let’s save them!”

It’s good that child soldiers (in Africa) appear in Call+ Response, but again there is no context to understand their circumstances. There is no mention of colonialism (let alone neo-colonialism), no analysis of the conflict minerals in people’s cell phones, and no acknowledgement of western mineral corporations or endless marketing (itself a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone) to convince people of the “need” for such electronic devices (or whatever other toys). Instead viewers are just left with anecdotal stories.

You can learn a lot of important things about a documentary by the people a director chooses to interview. In Call + Response, we are treated to an appearance by the war-criminal Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton). She comments on the injustice of the slave trade. This is meant to be sincere and convincing. However, many viewers may not remember that this woman claimed on national TV in the 1990s that a half-million dead Iraqi children from US-imposed sanctions was “worth the cost”. To which, the mothers or Iraq would likely respond: Fuck you, Albright, you occupy no moral high ground.

Most of the assembled interviewees are, unsurprisingly, very white—except for Cornel West. Regrettably, his usually radical analysis is blunted, as he is relegated to merely discussing the influence and origins of Black music. Other interviewees include prominent celebrities, who ooze a “savior” complex. We should be skeptical of celebrities who start doing activism (like Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Daryl Hannah), and that pick such sensationalist and uncritical topics for their efforts.

While non-sex trafficking is described, it’s the sex trafficking stuff that gets the central focus. As with the anti-breast cancer “movement”, we should suspect a titillation factor at work. You know, “ooh, boobs!” Whether the subject is sex trafficking or not, “slaves” are presented as lacking agency, thus requiring salvation. Surely, there is much clear-cut coercion, kidnapping, and the like occurring throughout the world. But, to lump all non-free practices together under the same label does a disservice to “victims”. People do things for complex reasons, including self-subordination. People sometimes sell themselves into bondage to pay for transit to other countries, to pay bills or survive, while others freely submit to “wage slavery” and work 40 hour work weeks. These distinctions—so crucial to understand about capitalist exploitation—are washed away. The film does try to separate slavery and labor at the beginning, but the debate is left undefined. Thus, the broader issues of free-will under capitalism are left un-addressed.

Other sensational elements contribute to the confusion. For example, it’s hard to have clear numbers about trafficking, given its illicit character. Just as with all estimates of crime, this one is just as tough, if not tougher. (Even US crime is hard to estimate, while actions outside the US are often harder, especially with Western cultural biases at work.)

One final criticism is warranted, which has to do with style. The “rockumenary” format of Call + Response is compelling in some moments, while tragically overblown in others. It’s hard to take serious a self-important and self-absorbed [male] rock star rocking-out, in the midst of the doom and gloom featured through out the film. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli shines, but most of the musical acts are rock bands—and mostly all-male efforts at that—featuring serious-looking rock stars (and, let’s face it, fuck rock stars!, amiright?). A subtle message is delivered herein, as throughout the rest of the documentary: these men are going to save women who need help. It’s an ancient patriarchal trope shrouded in mythological chivalry and just a tad of 21st century polish. It’s the kind of ensemble that a college-educated white dude would make, who independent of any grounding progressive politics, discovers a “cause” to dedicate his privileged, post-college life to. This effort, incidentally, requires zero introspection or lifestyle change on his part.

Of all the hundreds of documentaries I have seen, this is one of the worst. And, if this is cutting edge of new social movements, we’re all screwed. After watching this documentary, I am thoroughly depressed—for altogether different reasons than those the director intended.

Topics: crime, activism, music, sex, work

The Harvest / La Cosecha

While many Americans know that a largely Latino labor force harvests food in the US, few likely know that some 400,000 children also pick crops every year, too. The Harvest explores this even more troubling aspect of the US food system—its exploitation of child labor. Many people are unaware of the decades of struggle necessary to eliminate child labor in the US—through the labor movement and eventually codified in law—but even more unknown is that agricultural work has always been exempt, not only from overtime, safety protection, and originally Social Security, but also from child labor prohibitions.

Three Latino minors are presented in The Harvest: 12-year old Zulema, 14-year old Perla, and 16-year old Victor. These youth and their families harvest onions, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and peppers, in many states, including Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio. The lives of these youth are similar to many others: they primp and prime for the approval of peers (Zulema delays her family’s morning departure by taking extra time to put on makeup before heading to the fields), take care of and play with their siblings, help their families, rebel against their parents, attend school, and express discomfort with their lives. But, they also are unable to attend school regularly, they work with—and in some ways for—their parents for paid employment, move regularly, and in the case of Zulema express having goals, but no dreams. Thus, even though their lives are similar to many working class youth—getting jobs at earlier ages than their middle-class peers—they are even more stressed by economic forces, family pressure, and dislocation.

It might be easy to blame parents for children who are working in the fields. But, as The Harvest shows, the relationships children have with their parents is far more complicated than one might imagine. These parents want their children to goto school, be successful, and not remain migrant farm workers. And, the parents often do not even ask their children to help out (at least initially). Victor describes how he decided to pick crops to help his family—on a slow day, he estimates that he picks approximately 1,500 pounds of tomatoes. The pressures felt by these youth seem to come from all sides. Their families have expectations for them, which are themselves contradictory: get an education, but also help the family out. Society wants them to work hard, follow orders, goto school. Peers want them to hang-out, have a consistent presence, and do kid stuff. Schools want them to show up (or, seemingly, just drop out and stop causing so much administrative trouble). Perla wants to be consistent at school, but since her family moves so much, she can’t finish each year. Her grades do not always transfer from one school to the other and she had to re-do an entire year because of it.

The day by day grind takes its toll, even on the most optimistic. All sorts of small problems emerge to make things difficult. Their parents develop sore bodies and injuries far earlier in life. Sicknesses that happen without medical insurance lead to periods of unemployment. Unavailable work leads families to be economically stranded. These factors compound on top of each other, causing occupational entrapment, for the parents and children. Since the children have a hard time finishing school (there’s a very high drop-out rate for the children of migrant farmworkers), children have to rely on employment for survival as opposed to higher education and professional jobs.

The work that the children do is physically challenging, even for adults. The work is harder than they expect it to be, even though they eventually build up strength and endurance for it. Their knees get sore from kneeling, their backs get sore from bending over, and they get exhausted from the heat and lack of food. Victor washed his arms at the end of each workday with bleach because soap couldn’t remove the chemicals that coat his arms as he works. These chemicals (pesticides, plastics, etc.) also make it hard to breath and remain standing. In fact, an estimated 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. This is where the narratives of “hard work” and meritocracy in the American mythos are crucial to analyze. So, what exactly is the benefit (for them, at least) of getting poor, working class Latino kids to work hard? It seems to train people to tolerate their lot in life. Systematically, the myth of “hard work” benefits those in power. Of course, the wealthy rarely do physically strenuous or dangerous work (yes, they may have to think, but it mainly happens in air-conditioned buildings, in cushioned-chairs, with nice salaries), so this is really a by-product of ideological class warfare.

Ultimately, the consequence of using children as farmworkers seems to benefit agribusiness elites more than anyone else (even American consumers). The average farmworker family earns less than $17,500 per year—hardly enough to pay for the expensive cost of seasonal relocation, children, and growing medical bills. This low salary is most pronounced, as the farmworkers describe going to supermarkets. They see the very crops they picked (maybe even personally picked), but find it nearly impossible to afford. A simply calculation would show that an infinitesimal part of each item’s cost went to the migrant who picked it. This suggests a very clear problem: in order to deal with the economic need of families to have their children financially help out (and child labor itself), we have to deal with the exploitative conditions under which migrants toil. This does not necessarily mean raising the costs of food, since the profits of middle-men corporations and other agribusiness interests are incredible. Even a humble portion of this profit could be redistributed to migrant farmworkers and improve their living conditions. Of course, capitalists are always hesitant to make workers “too comfortable”, since it’ll increase worker bargaining power. But, it’s a struggle that is worth fighting. Unfortunately, the Harvest does not explore the rich network of social movements, farmworker unions, solidarity organizations, social workers, and others who work to achieve political reforms and economic parity. As the one downside to the film, its absence might leave viewers feeling angry and powerless, whereas the reality of farmworker resistance can itself be inspiring and hopeful.

Themes: migration, immigration, Latinos, youth, work, food

Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers

Less a documentary than an art-infused political statement, Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers, is a magnificent work of collage, mash-up, and polemic. The film focuses on numerous events and personalities from the early-2000s, as well as a plethora of disturbing and strange interviews and footage. Central to the film is its critique of consumer capitalism and corporate-led globalization. In part, the film echoes some of the best from the Frankfurt School, the Situationist International, the anti-civilization anarchist milieu, and the culture jamming subculture.

Representative of Surplus‘ critique of capitalism, the audience is treated to primitivist philosopher John Zerzan speaking—of property destruction during protests and over-consumption—to the backdrop of anti-G8 black-bloc demonstrators in Genoa, a big box store worker haplessly trying to corral shopping carts in a parking lot, and George W. Bush trying to cheer-up America following the 9-11 terrorist attacks by encouraging people to buy stuff. The movie takes a turn for the sad and unsettling by interviewing a strung-out looking designer of realistic sex dolls in his factory. He describes the objectified dimensions of the body types in a detached voice, unethusiastically use words that imply sexuality, but only pertain to consumption.

One of the best features of Surplus is its wedding of sound and image. In fact, the soundtrack merges seamlessly into the narrative, even sampling interviewees words to replay later throughout the film. A Cuban woman describes leaving her homeland and discovering all the other foodstuffs available, and practically oozes with enthusiasm. In contrast, the filmmakers melodically and repetitively sample numerous Cubans stating their typical diet: “rice and beans”. Even Castro’s speech is used to great dramatic effect in this way. (The film’s great irony—or sophistication—is that while critiquing capitalism, it does not give authoritarian socialism a free-ride, providing a dour, colorless depiction of freedom and choice under Castro.) Or, an ultra-masculine Microsoft executive (Steve Ballmer) beats his chest and screams “I love this company!” as he bounces around on a stage in front of his employees. Another great sample is the sound of coins dropping and spinning, which is sampled into a song as a Swedish millionaire entrepreneur (Svante Tidholm) describes how his prosperity has hollowed-out his life and how he longs for the cheap life again.

Perhaps the best effect is a segment that mimics a TV infomercial, set to a monologue from culture-jamming magazine Adbusters’ editor Kalle Lasn. The infomercial imagery is a perfect imitation, while Lasn’s words are lipsynced to the images of the then-heads of state of the US, UK, and Italy, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It is so genius and twisted, that its symbolism is second only to the recurring footage of workers in India who are employed to de-construct huge ships, piece by piece. The significance of this latter imagery—how capitalism will require incredible effort to dismantle and how a post-capitalist society will still “employ” thousands, amongst other meanings—is effective and devastating.

As a thought-provoking piece of anti-consumerist propaganda, Surplus is unequaled. Even with its unconventional presentation and design—different from most other documentaries—there is much to learn here about the radical critique of capitalism and its consequences. Were it more conventional, like The Corporation or numerous other films critical of corporations, it might lose some of its less engaged audience members; instead, Surplus grabs ahold of its audience and won’t let go, succeeding through both force of argument and style.

Topics: media, economy, work, culture