DOC NYC 2014: ‘The Hand That Feeds’ + ‘Little White Lie’
Workers at a Manhattan deli fight for their most basic rights, and a woman who believed herself to be Jewish discovers a shocking truth about her paternity.
Most films about undocumented immigrants in America have focused on their complicated legal status, struggles crossing borders or difficulties living in a foreign land. However, relatively few have zeroed in on the issues they face in the workplace. Many US citizens might imagine that the undocumented don’t have any rights at all when it comes to jobs. But it’s one thing to think that and another to see it, as we do in The Hand That Feeds, where we view one of those immigrants' actual paychecks: $290 for 60 hours of week. In the state of New York, minimal worker protections extend even to the undocumented, even if employers might think any kind of exploitation is legal.
Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears’ inspirational film, screening at DOC NYC on 20 November, is not terribly complicated or far-reaching. But it tells a powerful story that we don't often see in movies. The filmmakers track what happens when, in late 2011, some workers at a 24-hour Hot & Crusty deli on Manhattan’s Upper East Side become disgusted enough with their treatment that they start to organize. Nothing they are asking for sounds radical: they want to be paid the minimum wage and overtime, have safe work conditions, and most importantly, be treated with respect.
When the company asserts they have no right to unionize, the workers organize a union with the help of volunteers from the labor group, the Laundry Workers Center. When this action is stonewalled, the workers’ tactics escalate, from handing out flyers at work to occupying the entire deli. Management matches them for each escalation, and pretty soon “arrestable” workers (meaning volunteers with documentation) are being hauled away by the police.
The Hand That Feeds depends on its subjects, their capacity to tell their stories, their charisma on screen. The filmmakers here are lucky in that the protest organizers are a good-natured bunch with the kind of patient humor that stands their efforts in strong contrast to the brasher antics of the Occupy Wall Street types who briefly coordinate with their protest. The barrel-chested and shy Mahoma is something like a hero here, calmly facing arrest and deportation at every protest, no matter that each time, he knows he may never see his family again.
In addition to such personal experiences, Blotnick and Lears’s film also considers complex questions about justice, and also subtly depicts the workers in ways that avoid turning them into saints on a crusade. As the protestors tweak their methods to increase pressure on management, The Hand That Feeds is transformed into the necessary record of a fight for the most basic sorts of human rights.
Little White Lie
Another sort of experience is recorded in Little White Lie, screening at DOC NYC 19 November. As a child, Lacey Schwartz disbelieved what she was told, that she came "from a long line of New York Jews”. In her absorbing personal essay of a film, she reveals that she eventually came to see another reality, one involving a far more complicated set of identities in her background, namely, that her father was black. As we look at Schwartz on screen, we might be thinking that that she missed some obvious clues. But that’s one of her film's points: we typically don’t question lies we're told as children.
Film: Little White Lie
Director: Lacey Schwartz, James Adolphus
Cast: Lacey Schwartz
US Release Date: 2014-11-16 (DOC NYC 2014)
“I grew up believing I was white,” Schwartz says. The childhood she describes is a happy one on the surface, surrounded by family members and loved. She was born in 1977, just a few years after her parents moved from Brooklyn, where they grew up, to Woodstock, New York. At school, she never faced questions about her race, her "difference" attributed to a dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather. But in high school, her black classmates assume that she knew she was black and was trying to pass as white.
When the truth comes out in the film, it’s a long and drawn-out affair. Schwartz isn’t rewarded with one simple explanation, like somebody being handed their DNA-derived family tree on Finding Your Roots. Instead, she endures numerous confrontations and moments of confession, enough so that we start to feel uncomfortable during personal scenes that are already awkward are further complicated by the insertion of a camera. Schwartz’s father is a distant figure who appears disinclined to talk about this part of his past. Schwartz’s mother teases out the necessary information a little bit at a time, as though she imagines that if she delays long enough she won’t have to explain too much.
With these elusive subjects before her camera, Schwartz narrates the film with a straightforward ardor, like an undergraduate putting together a particularly accomplished video essay project. The structure and style couldn’t be simpler. But as a journal of personal discovery, Little White Lie is rich and complex, stippled with surprising revelations. Along with the investigation into her heritage, Schwartz also discovers a more general and troubling truth, a willful blindness on the part of almost everybody involved. “We found ways," she says, "to see what we wanted to believe.”
Lead Image from The Hand That Feeds