The Fruits of Labour
Labour relations have suffered major changes over last two years marked by the pandemic. People losing their jobs, the introduction of the notion of teleworking and working from home have irrefutably changed people’s psychologies. Because labour is such an essential part of our lives, we dedicate this section to documentaries concerned with working conditions in various socio-political contexts. The films in this section explore the relationship between culture, public policies, and working climates.
One could hardly find a recent documentary about labour that is more comprehensive than Jean-Gabriel Périot’s “Returning to Reims (Fragments)” - a film which uses found footage in order to investigate the changes undergone by the working class in France from the beginning of the ‘50s up to the present, navigating the Second World War, the women’s rights movement, the May ‘68 riots, and the recent Yellow Vests protests, when the failings of capitalism have become more and more overtly apparent. From a historical perspective of France we move to China, a country famous for promoting a very strict culture of labour among its citizens. In the observational documentary “Merry Christmas, Yiwu” we witness a clash between the working class and the pressures of the market, culminating in a contradicting and ironic mix of communist and capitalist values struggling to coexist. We see crammed Chinese workers labouring in harsh conditions in the largest Christmas decoration factories in the world, meant to supply the Western market. It feels ironic that these factories happen to be in China, a country that does not celebrate Christmas.
We stay in China for another instance of the same battle between capitalist values and communist ideology, between tradition and modernity, this time in a more personal film, “Father,” following the generational conflicts within a family through the eyes of one of its members - director Wei Deng. We are thrown into the smoldering yet always palpable tensions between the blind grandfather and his son - a successful property development businessman. More than just an extremely complex family portrait, the film also captures how the fixation on material success may contaminate the relationship between parents and children.
Another authoritarian regime is documented in “Chermet,” this time in Russia, where we follow one illegal activity - that of metal scrapping, a minor underworld but not without its own ardent battles for power. Despite looking through a narrow lens at only three characters, director Nikolay N. Viktorov’s choice to concentrate on an illegal activity carried out by individuals living below the poverty line tells much about the political and economic context of the country, with the violent, hysterical, and vicious micro-universe of the protagonists acting as a truthful miniature copy of the larger, faulty, and corrupted system they live in.
The films in this section aim to investigate in detail how various economic systems and socio-political contexts have a direct impact on the mentality and the lives of citizens, often highlighting an overt contrast between the types of labour they aspire to and those that they can access.