February 27, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

"Food Chains."

New York, NY –  With well coordinated anti-union and anti-worker campaigns continuing to march across the nation, a growing number of labor groups and independent filmmakers are beginning to reach for their digital cameras in an effort to stem the tide with real-life, human stories that are hard to ignore. 

Some of the most compelling and provocative worker-themed stories are now being showcased around town as part of the Workers Unite Film Festival’s “Spring Into Action To Raise Wages” series running through May. 

“We work with super professional filmmakers,” festival director Andrew Tilson tells LaborPress. “But we also want to leave the door open to what we call, ‘films from the front lines.’”

Director Sanjay Rawal recently screened his “Food Chains” documentary at the Lithographers Auditorium at 113 University Place. 

The powerful documentary completed last year, specifically chronicles the six-day hunger strike tomato pickers in Florida waged against the dominant Public supermarket chain, in addition to the overall inequity built into the nation’s food supply system. 

“Food Chains” epitomizes the kind of compelling documentary that “Spring into Action” festival organizers believe can both educate and inspire audiences to stand up to workplace unjustice.

 “Our whole goal is to bring light to these issues and motivate people to action,” Tilson says. 

At one point in the “Food Chains” documentary, Rawal steps away from the camera and directly confronts Publix representatives in an effort to get them to talk to hunger strikers. The effort ultimately fails, but Rawal says that since the completion of “Food Chains,” Publix has had to at least “craft some new lies” about why it callously refuses to raise wages and sign onto the Fair Food program. 

“Publix statements are the same PR bluster that we hear from most corporations that don’t really want to value the rights of workers,” Rawal says. 

ROC — the Restaurant Opportunities Center — is one of an increasing number of worker advocacy groups across the nation which is discovering just how effective filmmaking can be at mobilizing people at a truly grassroots level. 

“Film is a powerful medium,” says Catherine Barnett, executive director, ROC-NY. “It allows us to tell stories in a very visual and in-your-face way. It also personalizes the issue. Your’e watching something, but it’s actually somebody’s life. It helps to galvanize emotions and, hopefully, action.”

While many labor groups may only now be beginning to understand the importance of filmmaking and the arts as effective tools for institutional change, Tilson believes what’s actually going on, is a return to very traditional forms of protest. 

“What we see is that people are turning to cultural aspects — film, poetry and song, which used to be very important in the labor movement, but somehow got lost, and are now coming back very strongly,” Tilson says. “As we go through this period of economic contraction and struggle, people are turning back to the elements in their lives that tell their stories.”

This year, the Workers Unite Film Festival is joining forces with the 100-year-old Workmen’s Circle to produce the “Spring Into Action” series. Filmmakers and activists from as far away as China have submitted shorts and feature-length works. The next couple of screenings slated for March 19 and 20, feature two new films, “Tears in the Fabric and “Tangled Thread”, as part of a special presentation that looks back at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire, as well as persistent sweatshop conditions for garment workers around the world.

The first screening will be held at Litho Hall, 113 University Place on March 19, followed by a second screening at the NY Taxi Workers Alliance, 31-10 37th Avenue in Long Island City. 


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