Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Canadian Labour International Film Festival a Success

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.

Letter from André Shepherd, Iraq War Resister in Germany

Being a supporter of American war resisters in Canada, I heard about André Shepherd's case a year ago, and sent him a letter of support. I got this email just today. It's a great summary of his past year and the status of his case, but more than that, it's a great summary of all that is wrong with American military strategy. It gives me hope for a positive outcome in his case - and in the cases of all the war resisters here.

(Emphasis in bold is mine.)

Dear Friends and Supporters:

Wow what a year this has been! I cannot believe that so much time has passed since I first applied for asylum. I would like to take this time to thank each and every one of you for you love and support during this difficult but exciting period.

First I want to give everyone an update as to where we stand. As of right now, the Federal Office in Germany is continuing its fact finding mission in order to reach a decision as to whether or not I should receive asylum. I realize that many of you are wondering why this decision should take so long. We must understand that a decision of this magnitude cannot be taken lightly. Remember that a yes decision would pretty much be a de facto admission that the War on Terror is illegal and immoral. The ramifications of such a decision would be huge, especially since it would come from a strong ally of the United States. A move like that could provide a safe haven for the War resisters in Europe, it would be a huge embarrassment for the Administration, and could potentially put more pressure on the American Government to pursue War Crimes against humanity instead of continuing the ongoing persecution of War Resisters for making a sound moral decision. If the German Government decides no, then we are in a rather curious situation since as of this date there continues to be evidence that this war was one of aggression, and that it violates American, German, and international law. It would be interesting to see the explanation as to how such a decision could be reached, as well as the World´s reaction to such a decision. I understand that this is a potential political time-bomb given the long history of friendship between the two nations. Nevertheless I believe in true justice and that friends should be able to tell each other when they are in error.

Over the last year I have traveled the country giving talks and making appearances in order to raise awareness on this very important issue, as well as having a strong media and internet presence thanks to the help of very dedicated people. Looking back I feel as though we have been successful; however we must continue our efforts to reach the general population. It is difficult for the average person to fully connect to the Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly because they are so far away. Our job is to get the people to realize just what is happening on the ground in those countries, so that we may be able to put a stop to the madness that reigns there. I must continue to stress that the peoples of those lands do not hate us because of our beliefs and “freedoms”. They are opposed to us simply because we have invaded their lands. It would be the same situation if some invading force made their way into your hometowns. You would fight tooth and nail in order to get them out, and that is what is happening in these countries. I am not happy that our soldiers are dying for reasons that have yet to be disclosed. No one should have to die for nothing, especially not under false pretenses. My heart bleeds for every man woman and child who has to suffer on all sides of the conflict, because we are all victims of some very twisted policies. In order for us to help spread the message, I charge each and every one of you to please spread the word about this asylum case and to urge your friends and colleagues to contact the German and American Governments to withdraw from these lands NOW! Only with a united front can we even hope to achieve success. That is why we are continuing to ask for your support in this very important cause.

Since today is Thanksgiving in the United States, I wish to take the time to thank everyone for their tireless efforts in helping me fight this battle. Through donations of time, effort, and money we were able to achieve things that one year ago I did not dream were humanly possible. From the Winter Soldier Conference in March, to the Ethecon event in Berlin last weekend, we have spread our message to people from all walks of life. I am especially pleased that we were able to speak to schoolchildren about what it really means to be a soldier. This is very important since these children must make a decision that could potentially affect the rest of their lives. I want to make clear the importance of giving people the proper information so that they can make good decisions concerning their lives. For far too long we have been told what to believe and what to think about the world around us. It is time for us as human beings to wake up from our slumber and to see the world for what it really is by using our own minds. I wish to especially thank Connection e.V., Military Counseling Network, Iraq Veterans Against the War (in the U.S. and Europe), Tübingen Progressive Americans, the DFG-VK, Stop the War Brigade and Ethecon for helping spread the message of peace. There have been many other organizations and individuals that I have not listed that have also made major contributions to the case. I wish to express my deepest appreciation to all of you and ask God to bless you in the future.

Unfortunately the American War on Humanity is continuing. President Obama is set to send an additional 38,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, as well as going back on his promises to withdraw from Iraq. The death toll in the conflict is steadily rising and soldiers from many countries are dealing with mental trauma from this unjust war. The peoples of these lands are still fleeing their countries in search for a safe haven, and basic services are way below acceptable levels for a functioning society. When looking at the situation it is very easy to get discouraged. However there is reason to hope. The voice of opposition is growing stronger by the day, as our ranks are continuing to be filled with people from all over the world who are fed up with the crimes that are continuously being committed. We must continue to press on. Only when we stand together as one and demand that this comes to an end, will we be able to heal the wounds of the past, and be able to start building a better world for our children. I wish you all good luck and God bless you in all of your endeavors.

Sincerely André Shepherd