As an activist, I see a lot of depressing documentaries to stay informed about the awful things that are happening in our world in order to fight them. This week alone I saw three films.
"Resistance," depicted how the overprescribing of antibiotics to people and farm animals has led to antibiotic resistant superbugs that are killing thousands of people every year. "Cowspiracy's" theme was that animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change, but no environmental organizations want to admit or address it.
These were very informative and important documentaries. However, both relied heavily on interviews with experts who, along with the narrator, spewed so many facts and statistics at me, I could hardly keep up.
So imagine my delight when I watched a documentary where I didn't have to take notes; and I didn't feel like I wanted to kill myself when it was over. "The Hand That Feeds" is a film that was able to accomplish what only the best documentaries can. It conveyed an important social issue, the exploitation of low wage undocumented workers in our country, by telling a simple but dramatic story - a David versus Goliath saga where the 99% fought the 1% and won!
The story begins in early 2012, with one of the heroes, an undocumented immigrant worker named Margarito, counting his pay at the New York City deli where he works and realizing he was shorted. He only received about $5 an hour for his work week. When we hear the manager in the background asking if they were filming, the camera person replies they are only making a video to send home to the worker's family. This immediately portends a film that is going to depict great risk.
After learning more about the abusive and unsafe working conditions at this Upper East Side restaurant, we meet some of the workers. We learn why they came to America and the hopes and dreams they had for their children. Immediately the filmmakers have established sympathetic protagonists we can root for.
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Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the workers are helped by the Laundry Workers' Center, a group which helps workers in all types of industries organize. We are given a birds eye view into their meetings with the workers where they guide them through developing a strategy, which is to start their own union. This is exceedingly difficult in this day and age, especially when you are not affiliating with a larger union.
The rest of the film depicts the various tactics the workers use to achieve this end, which include flyering, picketing and finally occupying the store. We see how the organizers from the Center identify Mahoma, a strong but gentle man, and help him develop his natural leadership abilities.
The workers are aided by activists from a working group of Occupy Wall Street who are looking for something worthy to do after getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park. It is determined that if they need to escalate their tactics, these activists, mostly young American citizens, can afford to get arrested, whereas the undocumented workers cannot.
We see how they enlist the support of neighbors, customers and members of other unions in their efforts. There is a lot of tension in the story. Will Mahoma's wife, who is uneasy about her husband's work and the risk to their family, convince him to stop organizing? Will one of the workers who gets offered more money by the boss betray his colleagues? Will they succeed in getting their union? I won't spoil the film for you. But suffice it to say, there is a lot of conflict, suspense, solidarity and ultimately a satisfying resolution.
The film was directed by Robin Botnick and Rachel Lears, two filmmakers who worked on the media team of Occupy Wall Street. They learned of this organizing effort just a few months into the process and were able to capture most of it live and then added some reenactments.
If you are an organizer, an activist or just someone who likes a good story, you should see "The Hand That Feeds" before it ends its run at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills this Thursday, April 16. And if you support the right of low wage workers to have a life of dignity by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, you should come to the Fight for 15 rally on Wednesday, April 15.
Let's be inspired by "The Hand That Feeds" which shows that if we organize and persevere, we can win.