Toronto has become a city of film festivals. We have festivals focusing solely on documentaries, on the GLBT community, and many on specific ethnic communities. And now we have the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLiFF).
When I first heard about this festival, I couldn’t understand why a film festival would focus solely on labour issues; attending the grand opening of the fest, hearing the speeches of those in the labour movement and seeing a couple of the short films, I came to understand very quickly. The struggles of workers — which involve working conditions, workers’ rights, health and safety, sexism, and racism, just for starters — can be found in all corners of the world. While the details may differ, workers can learn from the triumphs and defeats of others, whether on the other side of the world or in a neighbouring town. And aside from travelling and seeing the evidence with one's own eyes, nothing is more effective than film — to educate, to raise awareness, and to be a rallying cry to support one another.
The inaugural fest kicked off with Six Weeks of Solidarity, about the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. This short film documented an important part of Canada’s history (and in doing so brought to mind some current struggles) and, sadly, what governments and big business will do to try to stifle dissent, protests, and strikes. This film was appropriately followed by Hold the Line, about the 2009 CUPE strike in Windsor and the current attack on pensions.
Expanding to issues of minimum wage, maternity leave, sick days, and the proof that a better world is possible, Poor No More compared the situation in Canada with that of Ireland and Sweden. While Sweden has problems of its own in dealing with immigration and diversity, it appears to have devised a happy medium in which the best labour conditions are achieved to the satisfaction of workers, management, corporate heads, and government. In this instance, the achievement of CLiFF has been to highlight how important a film such as Poor No More is; as production of the film is still being completed, many who were fortunate to see the film here are hoping to see it soon in wide international release.
Another newly completed film shown at the fest was the feature length You, Me & the SPP: Trading Democracy for Corporate Rule. Aside from dissecting this important issue and showing its negative impact on democracy and human rights, this film covers the use at Montebello of agents provocateurs — something that should be fresh in the memories of all Canadians, and that should provoke outrage.
The festival showed other issues and struggles across Canada. Los Mexicanos: The Struggle for Justice of Patricia Perez gave us a glimpse into the lives of Mexican farm workers in Quebec who are victimized by employers but are reluctant to speak out for fear of being deported. Its conclusion was not hopeful, but was balanced by 24 Days in Brooks, covering a successful strike at Canada’s largest meat-packing plant in Alberta, led by a largely immigrant workforce of more than two thousand people. Justice for All? showed the plight of low-income workers in BC, who are stymied by a legal aid system that is woefully inadequate to handle its number of cases. Dear John documented the announced closing of the John Deere plant in Welland, and the bleak future in store for a small city as it loses its main industry.
CLiFF’s international coverage moved across the map. Two films focused on Palestine and Israel: Seeds of Peace followed the fight of one Palestinian man who was fired for his attempts to obtain the same labour rights for Palestinians as Israelis; 6 Floors to Hell gave us a look at the living conditions of Palestinian men who seek occasional work in Israel by day, and spend their nights in the underground parking garage of a shopping mall under construction. Vinegar in the Valley gave an overview of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ movement in the US, from the 60s to the 80s. HERstory: Jeritan followed a group of Indonesian women who move to Macao, China, to work as domestic helpers, where they are underpaid and abused and the system offers almost no recourse. Invisible Force: Women Workers in Pakistan showed similarly poor conditions for the millions of Pakistani women and girls who work in the home for low wages, no benefits or recognition, and, sometimes, dangerous work. Perhaps most disturbingly, Who Killed Chea Vichea? documented the murder of a Cambodian man, a champion of the labour movement, whose death seemed to have been a warning and deterrent to a labour-friendly political party by the corrupt ruling party, and the framing of two innocent men to appease an international outcry over the murder.
On a happier note, CLiFF’s audience-award winner was Tanaka-san will not do Calisthenics, about a Tokyo man who was fired for refusing to take part in daily morning exercises in his office. During the film, Tanaka invites viewers to visit him. Some of the viewers of this film at the festival are planning to do just that; it is their hope that outsiders such as ourselves might be able to have some influence on his case by lodging complaints with his former employer.
Running a full week in Toronto, from November 22 to 28, each night’s films — all free — were followed by audience discussion, during which more than one person expressed a wish that such an important event draw higher attendance. Yet the festival’s founder, Frank Saptel, a dedicated board of directors, and a small body of volunteers have, in a very short time, created a significant and successful event. Aside from the week-long event in Toronto, the inaugural fest is truly pan-Canadian, taking place in more than 50 cities in every province from west to the east, in every territory, and even in one location in the US. Positive feedback from both organizers and participants ensures that the word will spread, pointing to even more participating cities and more seats filled next year.
Toronto’s biggest and most well-established film festivals are now household names. But even as CLiFF debuts, it has become the most significant event of its kind. No other film fest addresses concerns relevant to such a large portion of the population. Indeed, when we look at the larger issues – working conditions, pensions, and benefits under attack – we might argue that we are all affected. For even those of us not directly involved in these struggles need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in. It is the labour movement and its unions which have shaped our society, from the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, sick days, maternity leave, safety regulations, and health care benefits. And it is these things which are currently under attack. While our tax dollars are being handed out freely to bail out large, poorly managed, privately run corporations, we are being asked, under the guise of “recession”, to surrender the benefits which have become rights. These attacks must be stopped, and in order to stop them, a sleeping public must be awakened to these threats.
Modern technology is on our side. In the year ahead, CLiFF’s larger vision will be to invite us all to pick up our cell phone cameras and become filmmakers ourselves. Rather than limiting itself to professionally produced features, CLiFF will be looking for workers, students, and individuals with stories to tell. Stay tuned to www.labourfilms.ca.
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