Review of 2003 update of "Working Stiffs, Union Mains, Reds and Riffraff" by
by Steve Fesenmaier
While planning the first WV Labor Day Film Festival for the Paden City Eagle's
Club that took place over Labor Day weekend in 2005, I found the original
version of this book very useful. The original describes 150 films. This new
one describes 350 and includes labor films from around the world.
One of the most useful descriptions in the first edition is for "Sit Down
and Fight: Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers' Union," the
documentary on WV native son Walter Reuther. The 1993 film was shown on PBS
and sat on the state library's shelf unused for a decade. Thanks to this
unique filmography I learned all about the production, principal figures,
and sources of print info on the subject.
The new edition has a nice list of films about "miners and mining" that
includes many Appalshop films. He also has short essays on the different
kinds of labor film categories - documentaries, films of migrant labor,
peckerwood and white trash films, British social realism I: Angry Young Men
and BSR II: Ken Loach, Italian neorealist, and African films. The book also
includes a chronology of labor films and websites for the distributors. I
enjoyed the chronology of the history of labor films, noting that it
includes films by WV native son Pare Lorentz. It lists feature films made in
the U.S., non-U.S. features, and documentaries. The timeline includes one of
the first films I worked on - "Angel City" (1980) about West Virginians
traveling to Florida, only to end up in a migrant labor camp where they had
to cooperate with black workers to gain their respect. "Office Space" (1999)
is included rightfully - it has become a cult film and truly captures the
madness of workers trapped in cubicles like no film before or since.
"Northern Lights" (1979) has a full description. Jude Binder, the WV artist
who recently completed her own great film, "Field of Flowers" called me
recently, telling me that she thought it was her favorite film.
Unfortunately, it is not available on VHS or DVD.
Of special interest to me is that two films by Luis Bunuel, one of the
greatest filmmakers of all time, are included - "Land Without Bread" (1932)
and "Los Olvidados."(1950) Both films along with his first, "Andalusian Dog"
would have to make a list of the most intense films ever made. Neither film
deals directly with labor but to understand poverty, they are still amongst
the best ever made. "Bread" has the most pitiful scene, showing a mule being
stung to death - for real - and "Olvidados" is about the street children of
Mexico. I once saw a woman weep uncontrollably for half an hour after the
film. I stayed in the back of the auditorium, paralyzed by such a strong
Tony Buba, a friend from Pittsburgh, has three films included - "Lightning
Over Braddock," "Voices from A Steel Town" and "Struggles in Steel."
There are some problems with the compilation. The author states in his
"Introduction" that not all of the films are available - some were broadcast
on television and never made available for sale. One of the landmark major
labor films not described is also one of the greatest - Joris Iven's and
Henri Storck's "Misere au Borinage (Misery in the Borinage) (1934). I
screened it several years ago as part of the South Charleston Belgium
Festival, not having seen it in 20 years. Its power showing the horrors of
life in Belgium's coalfields during the Great Depression cannot be
overestimated. (Unfortunately, I do not know of a VHS or DVD source. I
presented a 16 mm print bought in the 1980s from a defunct film
distributor.) I wish that the book had an index so that a person could
search for films, say, on labor in West Virginia.
Some of the films I most would like to see include Ken Loach's film, "The
Price of Coal" (1977) and "Seacoal" (1985). Paging through the book, I
realize that despite showing films since 1972 there are many labor films I
still have not seen. I have something to look forward to in the coming
years - given that there is some kind of access.
Here is a list of recent films on labor I compiled for Counterpoise magazine
for its fall labor edition listed by date.
Who Needs Sleep
2006, 78 min. Haskell Wexler & Lisa Leeman,
In 1997, after working a typical 19-hour day on a film set, assistant
cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep behind the wheel, crashed his car, and
died. Deeply disturbed by his colleague's preventable death, Oscar-winning
cinematographer director and activist Haskell Wexler (Matewan) made this
powerful and personal documentary essay on our quality of life which shows
how sleep deprivation and long work hours are a lethal combination.
Harlan County, USA
2006 (1976, DVD) 103 mins. Criterion
Barbara Kopple came to Appalachia to study at Morris Harvey College -now the
University of Charleston. While starting a film about Arnold Miller and the
Miners for Democracy Movement a strike became very intense at the Brookside
Mine of the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June 1973.
Kopple shows the history of coal mining - the many deaths, the conflicts,
and for the first time in this film - the role women played in a strike.
Dave Morris, Hazel Dickens, and other Appalachian musicians provide the
music for the film. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1977 and has
become a landmark film, influencing the entire field of filmmaking. A
docu-drama version starring Holly Hunter was made in 2000 called "Harlan
County War." The film was restored and premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film
Festival. Extras on the DVD include an update,"The Making of Harlan County
USA," out-takes, and interviews with Hazel Dickens and John Sayles. Access:
Amazon.com and other sources.
2005 126 mins. Warner Brothers
Charlize Theron was nominated for an Oscar as best actress for playing Josey
Aimes, a Minnesota Iron Range worker who just wants to work to support
herself and her children. Based on a true story of a woman who stood up
against sexism and won the first class action lawsuit against a company for
sexual harassment. Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson and Sean
Bean star with her, McDormand also receiving an Oscar nomination for best
supporting actress. Directed by Niki Caro of "Whale Rider" fame. Filmed on
location in Northern Minnesota and New Mexico. Access: Amazon.com and other
2005 73 mins. Magnolia Entertainment
Steven Soderbergh, best known for directing "Erin Brokovich" and the "Ocean's
Eleven" remakes, came to Parkersburg to make the first of several
low-budget, digital films. It tells the story of several workers in a doll
factory who lead conventional lives. Tensions lead to an unexpected murder.
The DVD includes deleted scenes, a film on the making of it in Parkersburg
and Belpre, Ohio, across the Ohio River where a famous doll factory once
existed. This is the first Hollywood-based feature film ever released on the
same day at theaters, on DVD, and on pay cable. Access: Amazon.com
Coal Camp Blues, Coalfield Struggle
2003 55 mins. Jim McGee
Jim McGee made this film about Carl Rutherford, a well-known coal field
musician and activist. He was active in the grass roots group, Big Creek
People in Action (BCPIA), based in McDowell County. As a musician he is
known as a Buck Owens style singer, writing his own songs about coal mines
and life. Archival footage and historical photographs are used to illustrate
his songs. Also featured is Frani Patton, director of BCPIA. To learn more
about Rutherford, visit his website at -
http://www.geocities.com/carl_rutherford77/ . Access -Cost is $ 21. Send
check or money order to - Jim McGee, 1118 Hilliard Ave, Louisville, KY
The Last Campaign
107 mins. 2005 Wayne Ewing Productions
A unique documentary that combines footage from Mr. Ewing's first film, If
Elected (1972) that profiled WV politician Warren McGraw's Raleigh County
race against coalmine owner Tracy Hylton with footage of McGraw's primary
and general election races in 2004. The overwhelming power of corporate
money in contemporary elections is shown. McGraw beat Hylton when he was
outspent 10 to 1. In 2004 he lost when he was outspent 100 to 1. These funds
were spent airing the meanest attack ads in American political history.
The Kingmaker - Don Blankenship
30 mins. WVPBS
Reporter Anna Sale narrated this investigation of Don Blankenship, the
president of Massey Energy. Blankenship told the Charleston press he
considered the report to be balanced. Others think that it is not accurate
because the damage he has done to the environment and workers' health is
minimized. He is best known for financing the campaign against Supreme Court
Justice Warren McGraw in fall 2004, spending millions of dollars. (This is
shown in detail in Wayne Ewing's film, "The Last Campaign.") Blankenship is
best known for buying union mine companies, shutting them, and re-opening
them as non-union. Appalshop footage of his early days is used, and various
supporters present positive opinions about his management style and his
contributions to southern WV communities. Various reporters and detractors
are also interviewed. The fact that he even threatened to sue WVPBS is
noted. Access: WVPBS, $25, Debbie Oleska 1- 888-596-9729.
Labor in the Mountains
2005 55 mins. WVU Institute for Labor Studies and Research
This film tells the history of labor in West Virginia from the viewpoint of
a retired worker who lived through much of that history. A grandfather
answers questions about labor unions from his teen-age granddaughter. The
video is divided into two parts of roughly the same length. The first part
is introduced by the grandfather as he attempts to explain what labor unions
are, and how they came into being in West Virginia. This part begins with
the role of union workers in support of the formation of the state during
the Civil War, goes through the Great Uprising and General Strike in 1877,
and into the story of coal miners and their struggles for justice and fair
treatment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the rise of the
United Mine Workers of America. It then shifts to the challenges faced by
workers in other industries in the state as they also organized.
The second part involves interviews from a range of current labor leaders
who comment on how organized labor essentially built the middle-class in
West Virginia through organizing and collective bargaining, in coal and
other basic industries. They discuss how workers achieved both economic and
political power through their unions. With the arrival of
deindustrialization and the considerable loss of industrial jobs in West
Virginia, organized labor has shifted much of its base into
service-providing jobs and into the public sector at the state and local
government levels. The interviewed leaders discuss these trends and end with
comments on their concerns about the challenges facing working families in
West Virginia in the immediate future.
Harry E, Lester, recently retired director of United Steel Workers of
America District 2 and who is originally from Bud, WV, in the state's
southern coalfields, plays the grandfather. His real life granddaughter,
Elizabeth Lester, plays herself in the video. It may be the first history of
labor for children ever put on film. Access: Available as VHS or DVD, $5
from Labor in the Mountains Foundation, ILSR/WVU, 719 Knapp Hall, Morgantown
122 mins. Lotus and Quinte Film
German filmmaker Michael Glawwoger travels the world to show the difficult
lives of women and men who work with their hands. The five places he visits
are - Ukraine coalminers, both women and men; sulphur workers in Indonesia;
slaughterhouse workers in Nigeria; Pakistani welders who cut apart giant
ships; and Chinese steel workers. No actual deaths of workers are shown, but
the misery and difficulties of working in our supposed Information Age
economy are shown with heart and beauty.
Good website at - http://www.workingmansdeath.com/ Access: Seventh Art
Releasing - http://www.7thart.com/joomla/.
Waging A Living
2005 85 mins. Filmakers Library
More than 30 million Americans, one in four workers, are stuck in jobs
that pay less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. This film
chronicles the day-to-day battles of four low-wage earners struggling to
make work pay their bills. Shot over a three-year period in the northeast
and California, it captures the dreams, frustrations and accomplishments of
a diverse group of people who strain to live from paycheck to paycheck. The
four people are a 51-year-old certified nursing assistant in New Jersey who
is supporting her three children and two grandchildren; a 42-year-old
security guard whose $12 per hour job barely covers his modest living
expenses and his rent for a single room occupancy hotel in a blighted
neighborhood in San Francisco; a 36-year-old single mother of five living in
Freeport, New York who is a college student, worker and mother, making $8.25
per hour; and a 41-year-old mother of three living in southern New Jersey.
She had a very comfortable middle class life until she started going through
a bitter divorce. The only job she could find was a waitress position paying
$2.13 per hour plus tips. Access:
Nalini By Day, Nancy by Night
2005 27 minutes Women Make Movies
Award-winning film about outsourcing telephone service call jobs from the US
The filmmaker, a woman from India living in the US, explores issues of
identity, globalization, and capitalism. Access: Woman Make Movies at
Maid in America
2004 58 mins. Women Make Movies
They clean other people's homes and raise other families' children-often
leaving their own families behind. This film is about the lives of three
Latina immigrants working as nannies and housekeepers in Los Angeles, three
of the nearly 100,000 domestic workers living in that city today. The issue
of worker's rights is introduced in the film through Dynamic Workers, a
collective of women who have formed their own business to provide job
security and benefits, and Domestic Workers Association, a support
organization providing information and advocacy. Access:
A Greatly Overlooked Labor History Film
Gerard Depardieu plays the role of Toussaint Maheu from the film version of
Emile Zola's landmark book by the same name. He attempts to organize the
coal miners to resist exploitation by the owners. The novel was one of the
first to properly, using the finest art and understanding, to show the lives
of working men and women. The film version was not shown widely, perhaps due
to its theme and also its length. John Sayles film "Matewan" is not based on
this novel/film, but has many similarities. There were earlier versions
including a British mini-series in 1970, and films in 1963, and 1913.
Access: Used VHA copies available at Amazon.com, etc.
Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film
Thanks to WVLC Library Services spending $ 565, West Virginians have access
to the most comprehensive book compiled to date on documentary films. As
Hollywood films have collapsed as a result of vast overproducing and
mindless bureaucrats, the documentary film has risen to the forefront. Many
of the best films each year are documentaries, and many of the best film
festivals focus on documentaries including the West Virginia Film Series at
The South Charleston Museum and the Sutton-based West Virginia Filmmakers
Film Festival. If you want to learn more about the genre, this large print
encyclopedia is a good place to start.
The encyclopedia includes more than 800 articles that cover documentary film
from the beginning in 1885 up to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."(2004) It
also presents information on documentaries from around the world, not just
the Anglo-American world. There are 300 stills and for once is printed with
very legible size letters so even people over 50 can read it without a
When I first looked at the EDF, I visited the entry for my friend Les Blank.
It is well written and presents a nice article by Melinda C. Levin of the
University of North Texas. It also includes a selected list of his films.
Unfortunately, it lists only one "see also" entry - "Del Mero Corazon." In
fact, the EDF includes nice entries on Blank's acknowledged two
masterpieces, "Chulas Fronteras" ( chosen for the National Film Registry by
the Library of Congress and my own fav by Les) and "Burden of Dreams," a
British Oscar winning film that many consider to be the best film ever made
about filmmaking itself. I made copies of the three entries and mailed them
to Les so he could see what some people are writing about him.
The EDF also has three entries about West Virginia's greatest filmmaker,
Pare Lorentz. The three entries are on Mr. Lorentz himself and his two most
famous films, "The Plow that Broke the Plains" and "The River." I will be
using the information for a program in January 2007 at The South Charleston
Museum. Congressman Ken Hechler will be introducing "Plow" and the 2005
winner of The Pare Lorentz Award from the International Documentary
Association, "America's Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie" from Bullfrog
Films will be shown.
Unfortunately, there is no entry for arguably the world's most famous and
productive media arts center, Appalshop of Whitesburg, KY for more than 35
years they have produced a library of award-winning, poignant documentaries
that have influenced people around the world. There is nothing about them in
There is an entry for "Barbara Kopple" but none for "Harlan County, USA"
which has to be ranked as one of the most influential of the post-WWII
world. Oddly, the selected filmography only lists films of her up to 2001,"The
Hamptons." She has made three films since then.
I enjoyed the entry on Luis Bunuel's most famous documentary," Land Without
Bread" but there is no entry for Bunuel himself, certainly a great filmmaker
not known for his documentaries but still worthy of a full entry.
Dusan Makavejev, one of the most amazing filmmakers to move to America since
WWII, has an entry but none of any of his films such as "WR: Mysteries of
the Organism" and "Sweet Movie." This is odd considering that one author
writes," [Yugoslavian documentary filmmakers] introduced a contemplative,
philosophical, and cinematically thrilling approach in treating reality."
Michael Moore and Errol Morris, probably the most famous American
documentary filmmakers presently, also have entries, but just amazingly
"Fahrenheit9/11" is only a "see also" reference. There is an entry for Moore's
first major film,"Roger and Me" but "Bowling for Columbine" only gets a "see
also" reference to Moore's entry - which is only two pages. Morris also gets
only two pages plus one entry for "The Thin Blue Line," and nothing for his
Oscar winning, "The Fog of War." Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us when
Robert Flaherty, the father of the American documentary film, only gets
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