Political documentaries tend to suffer from their directors’ often uncompromising ideological worldviews. The Take, a new film directed by Avi Lewis and written by Naomi Klein, is no exception. Too often the smug certitude of the activist intrudes upon the film, undermining a genuinely moving story.
The film follows 30 unemployed workers in the Argentine province of San Martin who have formed a cooperative to reopen their idle auto-parts plant, a casualty of the country’s unprecedented economic meltdown in 2001. (Argentina’s $132 billion default was the biggest in history, and 50 percent of the population was pushed into poverty.) The workers are members of the Movement of Recovered Companies, which seeks to expropriate businesses shut down in the wake of the financial collapse and reopen them under the aegis of the workers. Their motto is simple: “Occupy, resist, and produce.”
US theatrical: 22 Sep 2004 (Limited release)
The rub? The owners of these plants and factories say the workers have no right to the property, and the Argentine courts have sided with them, ordering the police to evict the workers from the occupied plants. The smirking owner of the occupied Zanon ceramics factory cuts the stereotypical figure of a conniving corporate executive, serving to heighten our sense of solidarity with the victimized workers. The Brukman suit factory, one of the first to be occupied by former workers, was shut down in 2003, precipitating a nasty confrontation with the workers and thousands of their supporters. (Given Argentina’s authoritarian past, police restraint is not to be expected during these tense standoffs.)
The rules of capitalism dictate that property rights are sacred, which is why the workers’ movement poses such a challenge to the propertied interests in Argentina and financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Argentines pin a lot of the blame for their country’s economic debacle on the IMF, whose controversial policy of privatization was sedulously implemented by disgraced former president Carlos Saul Menem. Formerly state-owned businesses were sold off to the highest corporate bidder; even the famous streets and avenues of Buenos Aires were privately sponsored by the likes of MasterCard. In return for compliance with the IMF’s policies, Argentina received billions of dollars in loans.
While the auto-parts workers’ struggle is being waged in the context of the globalization debate, the workers themselves don’t speak the language of the anti-globalization movement. They are, by and large, a non-ideological bunch. They simply want to work, provide for their families, and regain their dignity. The mini-portraits of these people are by far the film’s most moving aspects. These blue-collar workers and their families are the often unseen (or ignored) casualties of corrupt politicians and IMF technocrats. One wishes that Lewis and Klein gave us more of them and less of themselves.
Of course, for all the fault imputable to venal politicians like Menem (he’s currently the subject of corruption and arms-smuggling investigations in Argentina, where he will be under house arrest once he returns from Chile) and dogmatic IMF officials, there were other causes of the country’s strife. Argentina has been notorious for out-of-control government spending and run-away inflation. As in so many Latin America countries, political office is often an opportunity to enrich oneself at the expense of the public coffers. It’s now clear that Menem and his cronies ignored that other IMF policy of reining in government spending, leading to the country’s ballooning national debt. When international creditors refused to lend the country any more money, default and chaos ensued.
Klein, who narrates much of the film, shows little appreciation for Argentina’s historically profligate bureaucracy, chalking up the country’s financial crisis to easy targets like the IMF. The problem is simply the model, otherwise known as the “Washington Consensus,” preached by the IMF. The Argentine workers’ movement, she contends, has the potential of “turning the globalization debate on its head.” The ambitiousness of the remark is owed to Klein’s idealism, which is admirable. But it’s hard to imagine the impact she envisions; even in Argentina, the number of businesses that are run by worker cooperatives is negligible.
If the notion of worker cooperatives strikes you as quasi-Marxist, it’s because it is. Klein hits upon this point, explaining that, whereas worker-run businesses of Communist states were imposed from the top, Argentina’s have sprung up from the grassroots. It would be unfair to tag these workers as political partisans of any stripe.
Klein, however, is a well-known paladin of left-leaning causes, and her film misrepresents certain facts. The Take was made during Argentina’s presidential contest, which ex-president Menem lost to relative unknown Nestor Kirchner, in a second-round run-off. The auto-parts workers, who had convinced congress to pass a law granting them the right to expropriate and operate idle factories, knew that Menem, who was running ahead in the polls at the time, had vowed to revoke the law and return all occupied plants to their owners. The film closes with a shot of Kirchner’s victory speech, as Klein says the new president is no different from Menem. This could not be more inaccurate. Kirchner, who today enjoys 65-70% job approval ratings, has refused to be strong-armed by the IMF. He’s on the verge of securing a deal whereby Argentina pays only 30 cents for every dollar it defaulted on, an amazing achievement. Kirchner has stood up to the IMF.
Why does Klein dismiss Kirchner as just another Menem? She’s in favor of a more radical approach, and sees any dealings with the IMF as unpardonable. A young Argentine woman—a new hire at an occupied bakery and expecting a child—echoes this view. Her mother, a low-level party functionary who worked to elect Kirchner, is a vibrant, street-smart veteran of Argentine politics who often clashes with her apathetic daughter. The young woman has given up on the political system and refuses to vote; she too would like to see workers run their own businesses through cooperatives. She and Klein want to see a world free of politicians where workers run their own affairs.
It’s an understandable sentiment in light of Argentina’s economic devastation, but utterly simplistic and utopian. When the auto-parts workers succeed in reopening their plant, we share their irrepressible joy. But we know their happiness depends in no small measure on Argentina’s political leaders. In our imperfect world, their role remains decisive.