In the months leading up to last year’s presidential election, documentary filmmakers produced an extraordinary and impassioned deluge of films that attempted to persuade Americans to depose George W. Bush. With Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 leading the charge, these films argued for the fundamental duplicity of the Bush administration and its exploitation of the Sept. 11 attacks. Moore’s film packed theaters across the Triangle and we at the Independent experienced a tremendous response to our screenings of lesser known films like Hijacking Catastrophe and Unprecedented. Well, we know how the story ended. Somehow, Bush was retained as president and Michael Moore’s film, after enduring a strong backlash, faded into historical irrelevance, even being shut out of the Oscar nominations.
Still, there is a silver lining for N.C. progressives. A grassroots revolt resulted in the election of a reform-minded outsider as Democratic chairman, sending an unmistakable message to the staid and cautious party establishment that had insisted on sending the same dull, business-friendly millionaire into two losing U.S. Senate races. New grassroots groups are springing up, and e-mail boxes are full of chatter about precinct meetings and other progressive gatherings.
The flowering of political documentaries presented a wonderful opportunity for the Independent to bring together an extraordinary community of battered but newly energized and defiant progressives. But clearly, the movies have to move beyond Bush-bashing. Whether we like it or not, he’s back in the White House, and there’s nothing we can do except organize, educate and resist in the face of the next few years in which overseas wars–fought by increasingly exhausted troops–grind on while Social Security comes under attack at home. Likewise for political filmmakers, it’s necessary to advance their cinematic objectives to positive ones, to create films that inform and inspire.
We at the Independent feel that we’ve uncovered just such a film. Surprisingly but perhaps appropriately, the film we’re showing next week is neither American nor does it focus on American politics. Called The Take, it’s set in Argentina and it comes courtesy of a pair of Canadian celebrity lefty journalists, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein. Lewis is a well-known television presence in Canada and Klein, his wife, has become a loud and passionate voice–in the pages of The Nation and in her book No Logo–against the international lending institutions that increasingly dictate how the world does business.
At first blush, The Take seems like an impossibly esoteric project mainly of interest to those who work in the activist trenches, getting people to buy shade-grown coffee and non-sweatshop clothing. But this well-produced film is actually a startling and inspiring look at an alternative future that approximately 15,000 factory workers in Argentina are proposing. The Take also offers possibilities for American progressives who find themselves on the defensive, being derided by Republicans as know-it-all elites who are out of touch with authentic working Americans (a phenomenon described by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?).
Lewis and Klein introduce us to Argentina, circa 2003. The economy is in shambles, thanks to the economic collapse of 2001 which was precipitated by the country’s declaration of bankruptcy (and which occurred the same week as Enron’s notorious self-immolation). Overnight, banks moved $40 billion in cash out of the country and the panicked Argentine government froze consumer bank accounts. Millions of outraged Argentines flooded the streets, finally fed up with the humiliations imposed by the ineptitude of President Carlos Menem and the economic model (“el modelo“) imposed by the International Monetary Fund, a model that had become a yoke of permanent debt.
But while the elected government churned through one short-lived leader after another, a surprising thing happened: Workers who had lost their jobs after their employers declared bankruptcy began occupying the factories and operating the machinery themselves. Apparently unencumbered by university academics, Marxist-Leninist theory or the remnants of the Communist Party, this movement simply took over factories with the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”
The movement began with a single action by seamstresses in Buenos Aires, middle-aged women who decided to continue working at their shuttered shop, the Brukman Suit Factory. Other tradespeople followed suit, and a movement–now called the National Movement of Recovered Factories–was born.
The Take covers a lot of ground during the course of its 87-minute running time, with the last half-century of Argentine history deftly woven in to the musical accompaniment of tango, folk and rock. We meet Freddy Espinosa, a laid-off worker from the Forja San Martin, an auto parts machine shop. Espinosa tells us that he made $1,200 a month at the factory for 15 years before the company suddenly declared bankruptcy. Running out of options for feeding his family, Espinosa leads a group of unemployed machinists in a bid to join the factory occupation movement. It’s a complicated task, made difficult by unsympathetic bankruptcy judges and politicians, but Espinosa and his cohorts press on, exploiting every opening in the nation’s bankruptcy code available to them.
In the course of the Forja workers’ quest, we meet workers at factories that have successfully collectivized, including the seamstresses of the Brukman factory and the workers of the country’s most successful reclaimed factory, a tile-making concern called Zanon Ceramics. In a coup worthy of Michael Moore, Klein manages to score an interview with the factory’s owner, a personal friend of President Menem who is contesting the takeover of his factory in court. The encounter is both funny and chilling: The aging plutocrat poses in front of aristocratic portraits and contemptuously dismisses the workers’ slogan: “Zanon is of the people.” Chuckling, he says, “How can that be? It’s not true. The investment was mine. All the work was mine. I put in everything. It’s not ‘of the people.’”
There is also an election going on during The Take and against all intuition, Carlos Menem makes a strong bid for reelection with appeals to law and order and by comparing his own years in the wilderness to those of Christ. But what seems most radical and potentially controversial about The Take is the workers’ indifference to the election. Menem may be the devil to most of them, but his nominally progressive opponent–supposedly their man–bears a strong resemblance to the timorous and uninspiring candidates Democrats have been running in this country. One unimpressed young activist featured in the film offers a slogan that makes a virtue of political apathy: “Our dreams don’t fit on your ballots.”
In our country, the Republican Party has performed a brilliant feat of political jujitsu in selling itself as the friend of the working man. The success of this transformation infuriates and exasperates liberals, and it’s one that defies argument: Attempts to counter it only fuel the Republican-encouraged notion of liberal arrogance. But with their marvelous and inspiring film, Lewis and Klein offer alternatives for grassroots activism. North Carolina is full of uninsured families, underpaid Wal-Mart associates, unemployed textile workers and indentured pork and poultry farmers who need help. And, if Klein and Lewis’s film is any guide, a revolution of ideas, economics and self-determination could already be underway.
The Take will be shown at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Monday, March 7 at 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $7.25. There will be one screening Tuesday, March 8 at Cary’s Galaxy Cinema at 7 p.m. and one screening Wednesday, March 9 at Raleigh’s Colony Theatre at 7 p.m. Tickets for the Cary and Raleigh screenings are $7.