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Silverdocs 2012: 'Betting the Farm' and 'Drivers Wanted'

Betting the Farm (2012)

In two documentaries about working hard for a living, the cameras' closeness ensures you see how individuals maintain their perspectives.

Betting the Farm

Director: Cecily Pingree, Jason Mann
Cast: Aaron Bell, Carly DelSignore, Vaughn and Laura Chase, Richard and Janet Lary, Bill Eldridge
Rated: NR
Studio: Pull-Start Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-22 (Silverdocs Film Festival)

Drivers Wanted

Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Cast: Eric Yin, Spider Footman, Stanley Wissak
Rated: NR
Studio: Weinstein Film Production
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-20 (Silverdocs Film Festival)
I never thought being underfunded was a bad thing, 'cause I farm.

--Vaughn Chase, Betting the Farm

Stanley Wissak is headed back to Queens, home to 55 Stan, the yellow cab company he's maintained since 1938. Beside him in Stan's silver Mercedes is one of his drivers, Spider, 90 years old. Maybe, Spider suggests, he won't be around 10 years from now. "You not gonna be around?" asks Stanley, "Where you gonna be?" Spider muses, "Downstairs," and Stan laughs: "You won't be downstairs, you'll be around. Keep working. Keep moving."

As they joke, the camera in Joshua Z. Weinstein's Drivers Wanted watches from the back seat, cutting from one man to the other, or more precisely, from the back of one man's head to the back of the other. They don't look back. They work and they move -- forward.

Just this morning, Stan's been at the cabdrivers' licensing office, where he regularly makes rounds, passing out flyers. Greeting dozens of potential new employees each day, he extols 55 Stan's virtues (140 cabs) and guesses where his potential employees are from. "Nepal?" he asks one young man. No, comes the answer, Tibet. "You climb the mountain?" Stan jokes. The 84-year-old Stan knows how to make an impression and also, how to run his business. "Ever see The Wizard of Oz?" he asks. "I'm the wizard behind the curtain, yelling and screaming. Don’t open the curtain, they'll find a little old Jewish guy there."

He pushes hard, expects commitment, and his drivers turn over frequently. They've all got stories, of fares who don't pay or fares who want to have sex in the car. "You gotta be nice" to get tips, they tell each other. Spider's longevity is unusual He only drives a couple of days a week now, but, Stan says, he's reliable. "He doesn’t go out when it's dark and he doesn’t speed." Cigar in hand, Spider recounts that he got his hack license in 1945, when he got bored washing cabs. He used to live in Florida, and New York's better. "I got tired of being called 'nigger,'" he sighs. His 72-year-old wife, ailing now, is from the city. "It doesn’t affect them the way it affects a real Southern-born black person, with two signs everywhere, white and colored." Here, he nods, "The garage has everybody in there, from everywhere. They may not understand each other right off hand, but they get along."

They certainly share a set of needs, mostly for money. One new guy's just lost his own business and filed for bankruptcy. "I have to do something to feed my family, to pay my bills," he says, "It’s a crisis, an economic crisis, that's why I'm here." Stan tells all of them upfront the job is tough, and "very, very competitive." Interviewing Eric Yin, a Chinese immigrant, Stan warns him that he'll have to pay for gas and MTA fees each day, before he can start keeping the money he makes. Eric nods. He knows the job, but he worries too: he's been driving since 1986, starting in China, but Manhattan's hard to navigate. Plus, he confides to his ride-along cameraperson, "I worry they will take advantage of me, a short Asian immigrant. They are much bigger than me."

His wife worries too, that his hours are long and -- no small thing -- at night. But Eric, like everyone else in Drivers Wanted, needs the money. When Eric first appears on camera, in his apartment (and he's the only subject who brings the film crew home), he's getting his young son ready for school. His hours as a tour bus driver have been cut recently, he explains, and he's got debts to pay off. "Credit cards are easy to use because you don’t see the money you're spending," he explains, helping the little boy put on his shoes. The camera's low on the floor, helping you to imagine Eric's perspective even though you've only just met him.

Drivers Wanted (2012)

Debt and determination also shape the experiences of dairy farmers in Maine, the subjects of Betting the Farm. Screening on 22 and 24 at Silverdocs, Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann's film is alternately lovely and nerve-wracking, following the efforts of a group of farmers whose lives are altered irrevocably when the milk company H.P. Hood summarily terminates their contracts in 2009. Second-, third, even eighth-generation dairy farmers, they're forced to scramble to find another way to do their work.

At first, forming their own company sounds like a terrific idea. Bill Eldridge, the new CEO of MOO (Maine's Own Organic) Milk, floats the idea at an agricultural trades show in Augusta, Maine, where he finds enthusiastic potential customers ("I haven’t bought a Hood product since they did that," asserts one woman, passing on to the next table with her husband in tow. But it's not long before the farmers run up against some fundamental -- and likely predictable -- doing-business blips, from faulty equipment to leaky cartons. For a moment, it appears MOO Milk gets a PR boost when Rush Limbaugh takes it up in February of 2010, complaining that the company's legal status allows it to seek money from government grants and loans. Lo, he complains, MOO Milk represents what's all wrong with today's welfare state, rewarding "companies that do not make a profit, if someone approves of their social mission." While Vaughn and his wife Laura lament that they're Republicans in the face of such party-branded ignorance, you might reflect on how the $110-billion a year dairy industry finds ways to its own government "rewards."

The farmers' processes here -- as they sort out how to run a multi-part company while also making sure barns get swept, kids have Christmas, and calves are born -- are indicated in a terrific mini-montage, slipping from daily chores and widescreen farmscapes to men and women in jeans and on their phones, in the car in traffic, standing out by the pickup, in a home office, shoes worn smooth on the soles up on the desk. When Vaughn Chase leans back from his desk during one call, the camera takes a moment to reframe, an image that beautifully suggests both the logistical concerns they're facing and also, underlining how this documentary is telling its stories, by smart compositions as well as by talking heads.

And sometimes, Betting the Farm offers both. When MOO Milk's farmers begin to argue, worried about feeding their families while supporting investments they're making in each other, the camera observes the legal council, Paul, in shirtsleeves at the head of the table, trying to outline what's gone amiss and what can go right, he's got a milk carton in front of him and a couple of Oreos in his hand, in motion as he makes his points: MOO Milk is, nationwide, recognized as this renegade, we're gonna make this happen, we're doing something that's never been done before. Because it's the only way you're going to do something different," he concludes, "is if you do something different." In Betting the Farm, as in Drivers Wanted, it appears that one of the more "different" to be done begins when people used to working alone find a way to work together.

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