August 8, 2009

Working Class Heroes: Top Ten Film Recommendations

Just an update on the exhibition of film posters and stills I organized for the AFL-CIO. Local union blogs are picking up on the exhibition all over the country; there are some prospects that it may travel after it closes here in November. And, (here only!) my top ten (film, not poster) list, which actually has 13 choices and is more or less in order of preference:

1. Salt of the Earth (1954) directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Production/distribution: Independent Production Company & Intl Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers. Filmed against the backdrop of the 1950’s Red Scare by blacklisted filmmaker Herbert Biberman, the film tells the story of a strike by Mexican American zinc miners in New Mexico. When the picket line is shut down by a Taft-Hartley injunction, the miner’s wives take over. Only a few professional actors were employed – most roles are played by miners, family members and union representatives.
2. Harlan County, USA (1976) directed by Barbara Kopple. Winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film follows a UMWA strike. Mountain culture is also front and center with music by Hazel Dickens and an interview with Florence Reece, during which the 76 year old activist sings her 1931 classic “Which Side Are You On?” a cappella.
3. Fast Food Nation (2006) directed by Richard Linklater.
4. Tout va bien (1972) directed by Jean Luc-Godard. Four years after the 1968 Paris demonstrations, a workers’ take over of a meatpacking plant provokes thoughtful (and sometimes absurd) ruminations on labor politics by employees, local union officials and management. Stuck in the middle are a journalist (Jane Fonda) and her lover, a filmmaker, who wrestle with the roles of intellectuals and artists in the struggle for workers’ rights.
5. Bread and Roses (2000) directed by Ken Loach. (Japanese poster pictured above)
6.The Navigators (2001) directed by Ken Loach.
7. Modern Times (1936) directed by Charlie Chaplin. A slapstick study of the alienating effects of the assembly line, time studies and automation. This was his final silent film.
8. Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza) (1981) directed by Andrzej Wajda.

9. Matewan (1987) directed by John Sayles. Based on the Battle of Matewan, a bloody 1920 confrontation between miners, who had been evicted from their company homes, and Baldwin-Felts detectives, hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Filmed on location in West Virginia. Hazel Dickens appears in the film and sings the title song, ‘Fire in the Hole.’
10. Cradle Will Rock (1999) directed by Tim Robbins. Tells the story of Orson Welles’ attempt to use the WPA’s Federal Theater Project for a Broadway musical about a steel strike. Also depicts depression era politics with a broad brush (and poetic license - the chronology is a little off). Subplots include anti-communist Congressional hearings; corporate plotting to aid Mussolini; and Diego Rivera’s famous confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller over the artist’s Rockefeller Center fresco.
11. The Organizer (1963) directed by Mario Monicelli. A professor (Marcello Mastroianni) helps Turin textile workers organize to fight for better wages and conditions.

12. Mondays in the Sun (2002) directed by Fernando León de Aranoa. Workers left idle by the closure of shipyards in a Spanish port cope with unemployment and dim prospects for work.
13. Baran (2001) directed by Majid Majidi. At an Iranian construction site where Afghan refugees are illegally employed, an Afghan teenage girl poses an a boy to obtain work after her father is disabled from a fall due to unsafe conditions. A young Iranian worker resents the new employee until he discovers her secret and falls in love.