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04.23.08

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Photograph by Katie Orlinsky
No, You Can't: University students in Oaxaca form a barricade in Jill Friedberg's 'Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad,' screening April 25 at Cabrillo and May 1 at CSUMB as part of the Reel Work Film Festival.

Workers of the World

For two weeks in Santa Cruz, the Reel Work Film Festival explores ordinary lives in New England, Oaxaca and everywhere between.

By Richard von Busack


One of the big events at this year's Reel Work--a free festival of labor, environmental and working class cinema expanding to three counties this year--is, naturally, happening on May 1, International Workers' Day. The screening of Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, will be preceded by an introduction by filmmaker Jim Brown at the Del Mar Theatre, with music by the Santa Cruz Peace Chorale opening.

Since I personally owe Seeger, I don't care to write about him with detachment. Hearing Seeger sing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on The Smothers Brothers Show in 1968 convinced me that I'd never wear a military uniform. I was told that the song-story, about troops marched into the river and drowned by a drill sergeant, was true. Journalist Greg Palast, reviving the song in a recent column, claims this was the case, though Seeger's own account calls the song an allegory.

Be that as it may, the way a song gets a life of its own is part of the subject of this documentary. And it proves that the still-vigorous Seeger is a figure of the stature of Henry David Thoreau. Brown's film shows Seeger's New England self-reliance as well as his sense of duty to the poor of the world. Seeger was from a family of musicologists steeped in Appalachian folk; his first instrument was a ukulele (a great gateway drug, those ukes), though he gravitated to his trademark familiar banjo.

A Harvard dropout and a card-carrying Communist, Seeger rose in fame after World War II as a globetrotting performer. His "Turn! Turn! Turn!" fathered the rock classic by the Byrds, and he taught countless Anglos about Jose Martí's "Guantanamera" at a time when all they knew about Cubans was that Lucille Ball was married to one. And whenever a reactionary snarls about left-wingers wanting to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," they're referring to another song Seeger brought to the First World.

Another working-person's hero is coming to CSUMB on April 28 and to San Jose City College on April 30. Lois Jenson, a Minnesota native, is the Jenson of Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first class-action sexual harassment suit. It took her and her colleagues 15 long years of litigation to persuade one company to recognize its federal obligations to protect the women in its work force. Screening for free both nights is the film based on Jenson's case, 2005's North Country.

"I had a right to work," Jenson told me via phone from her home in north Minnesota, "and I was not out for retaliation, or to humiliate anyone. I just wanted a sexual harassment policy at work, and to get the info flowing. I was working with 1,200 men, and they weren't all causing trouble. Not even 600 of them were. In the union, there were men who protected my right to be on the job. I couldn't have gotten through the case without those who liked me and helped me."

In the name of compression and a strong main character, Lois Jenson's name was changed and the case simplified in the movie. Jenson loves the film, saying, "I've watched it about 20 times." North Country is the first really good look at a remote part of America and the titanic kind of work done there. It shows you the canyon-size open pit mines, the trucks as big as apartment houses, the dizzying catwalks, the filthy iron dust and the tremendous noise. Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, one of the first women in the taconite mines. Like Jenson, Aimes is a single mother who wanted a union job that paid three times the local wages.

What happened to the real-life Jenson is even worse than what Aimes goes through. Jenson and her female co-workers at Eveleth had their lockers broken into, and their street clothes repeatedly ejaculated upon. They were taunted with dildos and smeared with grease. The famous scene in North Country, of a female worker trapped in a knocked-over Port-a-Potty, happened in real life--not once, but twice.

Jenson got through it at last. Slowly but surely, she's today writing her own account of the landmark case. Though she's more famous in legal circles than elsewhere, Lois Jenson made the work world safer for women, such as the female trucker I heard of who had as her motto: "They don't want to take your job. They want one of their own."

Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad, by Jill Friedberg, is a brave, thrilling, tragic and yet often mordantly funny documentary about the insurrection in Oaxaca two years ago. It's all news you're not getting on TV, and it's told with urgency that many a documentary maker ought to emulate. The story begins as a strike of the Mexican state's teachers union over low wages, bad facilities and the half-starved pupils in one of Mexico's poorest areas. The strike spread to the populace and an occupation of Oaxaca's city plaza. Government attacks began with tear gas sprayed from helicopters; they increased to more violent means, including riot squads by day and goon squads by night.

The Oaxacans dug in their heels, commandeering radio stations and television stations; a group of teachers marched 300 miles to Mexico City's zócalo to bring the matter to the attention of the nation.

As it is well known that Oaxaca is the home of some of Mexico's finest artists and artisans, it's no surprise to see how the governor gets roasted in every possible media, from folk songs to papier mâché. (The ingenuity of the strikers is remarkable: clean Kotex used for gas masks and padding for the long-marcher's shoes, for example. And one woman is interviewed wearing swimming goggles. It takes a second to figure it out: impromptu protection from tear gas.)

The film stresses the importance of keeping a people's movement going for the time after Ruiz is out of office. Meanwhile, a war of attrition continues, with South American-style assassinations, disappearances and rapes. The film's website notes that three activists who worked at La Voz que Rompe el Silencio in San Juan Copala were killed in broad daylight recently. Still the locals continue operating guerrilla radio stations that the Mexican government can never quite wipe out. It's in Spanish with English subtitles; the April 25 screening at Cabrillo College is sponsored by the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers; a following May 1 screening turns up at CSUMB.

In Thirst, Bay Area documentary makers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman were early investigators of a worldwide problem; the two filmmakers go on the trail of privatized water, beginning at the 2003 Third World Water Forum in Kyoto. There, a representative named John Briscoe describes free water for all as "an activist's fantasy" and no human's right. Things head south from there, literally, to Rajasthan in India, where the conservationist Rajendra Singh helped save the Arvari river from being drained by privatizers. The filmmakers observe failed water privatization schemes in America from Atlanta to Stockton.

"Water is a watershed issue," Snitow told Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! "It's essential but it's also something that you're not going to hear about outside of the local area." Snitow and Kaufman's equally prescient Secrets of Silicon Valley (2001) is back for another look. It was one of the first studies of what journalist Thomas Frank called "the myth of frictionless labor" in the high-tech field.

Berkeley director Ann Hershey is bringing in her documentary Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Action for its Santa Cruz debut. Olsen is best known as the writer of one of the best-loved short stories in English, "Tell Me a Riddle," but she was also a poet and activist with deep Bay Area roots.

"This is a seven-year labor of love," Hershey says via email. "I only wish Tillie were here to enjoy the fruits of our labor. She gave me constant support for the project and the most wonderful unconditional love I've ever received. I met Tillie in the 1970s, during the resurgence of the women's movement. I knew then that one day I would make a film about this extraordinary woman and her stunning writing." What surprised Hershey was Olsen's "vitality and love of traveling ... she was sharing her work in readings, workshops when she was 89 (!). She continued until she was around 91."

Other films at Reel Work include Amie Williams' Eye of the Storm, about the lockout of longshoremen during the 2002 strike in Oakland. Elissa Moon's Bad About Being Korean is a personal narrative of her childhood as an outsider. 9/11: Dust and Deceit, by Penny Little, concerns the public lies about the chemical hazards left behind after the World Trade Center catastrophe. There is a one-night series of Sierra Club films, pieces on the WGA strike and the local premiere of The Singing Revolution, a documentary about how the Iron Curtain fell in one Baltic country: 20,000 Estonians held hands and sang their way to freedom. It wasn't "Kumbaya," but it was a start.


Movie Times REEL WORK FILM FESTIVAL runs April 25-May 11 at various locations in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties. Films are free; donations accepted. For schedules and other info, see www.reelwork.org.


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