Women Workers in Italy Fight For Their Real Lives

New Doc at Workers Unite Festival Wins Top Prize

Females Occupy, Outlast Capitalist Neglect

Last Line of Opposition to Global Insanity?

A striking new film won first prize at the recent (May 10-17th) Workers Unite Festival at the Cinema Village, at 12th ST and University Place.

A movie with little overt action, Women Workers War celebrates tenacity and patience when outrage has nowhere to go in modern capitalism

“Women Workers War” broke all the rules of movie drama with its slow paced recording of a 550 day workers resistance event, one without much real action at all. Most of the action, in fact, takes place in the heads of the women it puts on the screen, and in the heads of the audience.

Yet so strong is its theme – the oppressive and depersonalizing effect of modern production attitudes on the hearts and minds of workers – that it ended up the most admired work among an extensive selection of sometimes very dramatic, even heart wrenching entries, such as American Winter.

Time to think

Directed by Massimo Ferrari, the film, which premiered at the Festival, is a very slow paced, reflective study of 18 women workers in a tent factory in Italy who are laid off without back pay by a hands off owner who lives elsewhere. In a burst of resentful solidarity they occupy the premises for what turns out to be the longest such takeover by women in Italian history, 550 days of tedium and anxiety.

Amid the deserted sheds which house silent machinery they come slowly to realize how poorly they were treated even while they were at work, their skills and labor the only thing that interested management and owner. Their example becomes a cause celebre for women in Italy, who it turns out are often as badly treated as Third World workers, their humanity neglected by their managers and their social lives circumscribed by long hours and low pay.

As the women of the Tacconi Sud factory in Latina survive month after month of judicial delay and isolation they find a strong supporter in a businesswoman, Margherita Dogliani, who owns a biscuit factory in Carrara. She has already implemented policies in her own company to enhance the cultural and social lives of her workers.

A drama of ideas and ideals

The moviemaker caught up with the occupation only after it had started, and there is little overt excitement in the story he tells. Most consists of interviews with the leading player, Rosa, shots of Margherita visiting Rosa, and interested parties standing outside the bankruptcy court in Latina.

Really the only overt drama occurs at a couple of points where Rosa breaks down in tears, exhausted by the endless legal delays and the interminable hours spent in a deserted and dead factory inside its manager’s office, taken over for the duration. Children visit, but continually ask “Why can’t we go outside?”

A year and a half of looking out of the window at the bleak landscape of abandonment

Yet with the help of Rosa’s words drawn from a Facebook diary, or expressed in tearful interviews, the film tells an important story with global implications. Italy, long a nation where family life was strong and guaranteed a high level of social and moral integration, is now being corrupted by the same forces of extreme capitalism that are tearing the social and political fabric of the US.

The hapless group occupying Tacconi Sud are members of a much larger group of Italian women workers on factory floors and in other humble occupations that have been relegated to a slave status not much better than the workers of Bangladesh apparel companies, the film testifies.

A War Against Neglect

Dramatizing what is essentially a inaction movie would be a difficult task unless the film penetrated the battleground of ideas and ideals behind the standoff, but this it does. All Rosa’s complaints have wider relevance to the depredations of 21 Century capitalism in Italy and around the world.

Ferrari’s very lack of interest in dressing up his story with action sequences in the manner of news reporting serves to focus the mind on the political and philosophical lessons evoked by Rosa and her new friend Margarita.

These substantial yet devalued women who address business politics with their hearts as well as their heads knit a rich moral drama with their poignant hopes and unjust disappointments, naive assumptions and newly informed blame, and the rich rascals such as Berlusconi who evade responsibility and escape blame.

If capitalism off the leash threatens to take down Western civilization, as it turns much of the population into a domestic Third World, these women are sounding the warning.

A sad note is struck as Rosa points out that photographs of them when the plant was started show them as 20 year old. For these women, work has been the major investment of their lives – they have spent more time at the factory than at home. “Work means everythng to me”, says one, “I spent more than 20 years of my life here.”

As another says, this is not just a problem of wages, profit and GMP, but one of “the human condition.” Unlike the US, Italy is an old civilization, and if even there the rich have forgotten to look after their neighbor, we are in the global soup.

Sisterly solidarity

Marguerita,who comes to visit Rosa in a spirit of sisterly support, runs a family biscuit factory in Carrara. She has already introduced changes in the treatment of her own workers, after she was horrified to discover that they had no cultural or political life at all. Every summer her parking area is transformed into a cultural festival where as many as 300 actors, musicians and other performers have introduced them to their own national culture.

Traveling to the Latina tent factory she plans to brief them on the law and other practical matters, but immediately finds herself discussing the “human condition of women”. Together, she vows, they will change Italy, and the two start to address meetings and the media on the topic of releasing women from labor bondage.

A professor of labor relations visits the factory to expand Rosa’s understanding of the philosophy and politics of his field, but seems to be yet another patronizing male. He is anxious to warn her that she might wear a halo at the moment, but whistleblowers tend to suffer a sad fate. He compares her to the architect of Pharaoh’s pyramid, who was killed to ensure that he didn’t divulge the layout of its chambers.

She explains to him the root cause of failure of the company – they flourished with military orders but when these dried up and they had to face the tough competition of the private sector, they gave up.

In the film’s languid tale, we learn that the company’s hand made tents involved hard and skillful work. Rosa spends much time staring out of the window, underlining the inactive torpor the obstinate little group brave for so long. The suffering of Rosa extends to sleepless nights, with only two or three hours rest even with pills. She breaks into sobs on camera. The longer they are waited out, the more likely it is that they will break. Doubts gather: “Maybe our occupation is useless”. Rosa’s simplicity is part of her charm, and it is also evidence of her need for the paternal, responsible leadership which in earlier times used to be the noblesse oblige of the European upper classes. The US has lost this sense of accountability, the recognition of a moral and social obligation to look after workers, for the most part. Now it seems it is vanishing from Europe, as conscienceless corporatism overwhelms even the highly socially integrated society in Italy.

Rosa’s own motivation has never been heroic, she acknowledges. It seems she was driven to action from desperation, without any alternative if her self respect was to survive. Or, even, the validity of her life. The bad apples among the men in charge steal lives, not just labor, it must be acknowledged. Her sheer powerlessness of the individual in the face of the modern business system, and also the court system, where their case is postponed and postponed yet again, sees her break into tears again in front of her group of occupiers, who commiserate and encourage her: “Rosa, we are still here…”

As the bankruptcy court keeps postponing its decision, the pressure increases, with Rosa again in tears in front of her group, the people that she now feels responsible for. The truth is that as a leader she is highly vulnerable, and so are her followers. Her main vulnerability is her ignorance. Where the professor feeds her trite analysis and philosophy along the lines of comparing her with Pharaoh’s architect and tells her her halo is temporary, she laps it up like a sophomore hungering for advice. Such is her ignorance of the wider world, and her fears, that she is grateful for any confirmation from outside that her direction is justified.

Viewers might reasonably be asking themselves by the end of the first half hour of this film, Is there any action in this movie? Is there anything to take it beyond an interior monologue, something to justify it being a movie and not an article, say. Thus the film imposes something of the frustration and tediousness experienced by its subjects, especially when shown amid the urgent bustle of a New York City where the pull of competing attractions and errands is always felt. We are trapped in the Hurry up and Wait atmosphere of the sit in in our turn.

The imposed frustration of the film as experience is magnified by a subtitle translation which is often wanting, sometimes unfathomable, in the blithe Italian manner, though the gist is clear. Dreary and tearful in its portrayal of the pressure and damage perpetrated on the women over many months, the tale nonetheless celebrates the solidarity and humane sociability of their own inclinations. The core group is eventually joined by more women, some bringing their children, who play in the background. Thus family values are set against business values. The onlooker is tortured in turn by the slow turning of the spit on which they are impaled, but also uplifted by their human spirit, which survives .

Margherita, the businesswoman owner, as the more educated and sophisticated of the pair of revolutionaries articulates the issues best in her public talks. She frames resistance in terms of preserving rights and maintaining relationships, which is hard amid “a lack of trust in politicians, a lack of passion in politics and an economic crisis, all leading to a gradual impoverishment in the quality in human relations – a grey world. What is still wonderful in this grey world? Our lives. Our lives are wonderful, every life is wonderful, mine, yours, ours.”

Their call for valuing and respecting the lowly females on the production lines of her factory and other plants is heard around Italy, and many of these oppressed step up to express their gratitude for their growing realization that they deserve dignity and to share their successes with others at work. “I have learned that every single honest worker man or woman deserves respect” says one who comes to the microphone at a meeting. Margharita has successfully turned her own labor force into a family, it is clear. They revel in the expansion of self expression and the knitting together of their social fabric, so now they can share their interests and their sorrows. Work is more meaningful and rewarding, and they thank her for it.

Meanwhile back at Tacconi Sud, the women stare at the passing trucks and cars whizzing past on the road outside, and the slow takeover of the exterior of the plant by Mother Nature. The tedium overwhelms them so that they are unable to study or use the endless time constructively.

Rosa goes to visit the professor who runs a college to train people in how work changes and how they must learn new skills throughout their work life. He talks pap at her about how her new job when it comes will be a new experience for her, and she is in a fragile period where she must find the motivation to change. At this point the film begins to read a little like a satirical farce, but Rosa politely listens after her “Yes, but..” is brushed aside. The professor prefers to pontificate rather than listen to her, another example of how her supposed betters behave badly.

Finally, we hope, the dolorous lethargy, where the residual action consists of Rosa walking from room to room, and the deserted factory floors are revisited once again, is broken by news that there will a second Bankruptcy hearing on Feb 9 2012 in Latina. Rosa leaves her “sinking ship” hoping there will finally be a resolution, said to be expected in a week or two. She goes to visit Carrara and Margharita’s factory for the first time. She is delighted to find a working atmosphere where people not only work but “talk, stop and think.”.

While she is there a phone call from the lawyer. The court met and decided on bankruptcy. “We won,” she says calmly, her inflection hardly changing from its usual note of sadness. But she smiles, at least. The keys are put into a tray for the “new owner”. The camera follows her shoulder as she walks away talking of her new politics. “We have came to understand that there is nothing better than participating into our own lives here and now; than the awareness of sharing a common space where the others are not different in their needs, in their human condition. It is important to believe in law enforcement and o have our own rights protested, to take part in the political life of our country, no matter what our role or responsibility..our Republic is founded on the value of work. Now I know the meaning of the word ‘Resistance.’…the more they are attacked the more those values you are striving for must be defended and maintained.,”

According to the final notice on the screen, after negotiations with the union the women were reinstated in their jobs – another instance typical of the film, of how throughout we are never shown any action images of what the factory is like when it is working, either before or after the “war”. Moreover what is entitled a “war” is in fact a long drawn out study of inertia where all the action is internal. As it turns out this so called movie is not so much a film as a tract, with the words of Rosa quoted from Facebook or occasionally spoken in front of the camera serving as the teller of the tale. The effect is rather like shooting up and down a queue for fresh chicken in some Communist country post war and then failing to include the final rush into the store when it is opened.

Unfortunately, this matches exactly the feminine passivity that Republican capitalist barbarians of the new empire of economics probably count on, inviting just the kind of exploitation that the women are fighting. In the modern battleground where winners take all and the law and government stand ready to bail them out if they fail, if they are big enough, this pacifist, maternal social enlightenment which the film portrays probably appears as simply a matter of victims “asking for it”, in the minds of the people who exploit them.

But that reality is of course the mark of the civilization which we have lost, and which they are asking us to reclaim.

The trailer to the movie can be viewed here.

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