Avi Lewis: Documentarian for the worker

By Ashley Spinella

Avi Lewis speaks with the enthusiasm of someone onto something. The widespread success of The Take, his directorial debut, underscores the relevance of documentary filmmaking as an alternative source of information. Among the masses, documentary filmmaking is enjoying unprecedented popularity, but it is still uncertain whether the genre will dissipate like all trends.

“In the documentary community, this is the huge debate right now-is this a flash in the pan or a paradigm shift? I believe that the documentary genre has arrived,” proclaims Avi Lewis. “The general movie going public is not getting reality from reality TV shows. They’re not getting real information from the war in Iraq, from mainstream news. They’re getting it from documentaries. The filmmaker doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, so when the audience is watching a well-made documentary, the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. People want to be taken somewhere they’ve never been taken before and in a formula driven Hollywood movie every one knows what to expect.”

The Take is not to be passively observed and forgotten, but it is a film willing to ignite the emotions within audiences. This gives the film its universal significance-The Take is not just a reflection of a movement in South America.

” I think what happened in Argentina is a cautionary tale,” says Lewis. “Because I think we’re embracing the same policies here in Canada, just imposing them in slow motion hoping no one will notice. But people are noticing. Canadians really get globalization. They are really seeing the parallels with the Canadian experience, because factories closed in the ’80s and the early ’90s and we are going through another wave of it today.”

The workers in the film aren’t the vapid stars gracing reality television screens in your living room, but real ordinary middle-class people attempting to respond to global economic forces that threaten to change their lives in detrimental ways. As audiences see in the film, the collective organization of Argentinean factory workers takes DIY to a whole new level. As this movement is about the democratization of every facet of life it challenges North American perceptions of what a democracy looks like.

“What’s so inspiring about the movement in Argentina is democracy is bred into everything they do,” says Lewis. “Democracy is not about having a guilty encounter in a church basement every four years with the ballot and a mini golf pencil; democracy is about having power over the decisions that affect your life and what the workers in the recovered companies are doing is bringing democracy right into the work place. Imagine having a say in the place where you spend the most of your time and have the fewest rights. I think Canadians are really responding to that. The global economic model is being applied everywhere and it’s making work itself precarious. Call center workers and high tech workers are subject to the same forces, as are the peasant farmers in the developing world and family farmers in the prairies of Canada and the US. I think that people really understand the way that globalization is transforming our local communities and understand that politicians don’t have any answers.”

Lewis notes the movement portrayed in the Take is not ideological, but driven by necessity. “They’re not lefties. They don’t have their political dogma that they are trying to impose on the situation.”

However, he observes, the workers of the fabricas occupadas are challenging the very tenets of capitalism by attacking the right to private property. They assert the millions of dollars of corporate welfare received by the companies originated with them, and therefore they have a claim to the factory. The original owner of Forja, the auto parts company, refutes this claim in the film. The workers make a strong case, however, and the courts are starting to acknowledge their claim:

“They are saying to the owners, ‘We’re creditors in this bankruptcy and we want to be paid back by taking the physical plant, the machines-and using them to continue working to pay ourselves back for what was stolen from us’ And the courts are validating that legal argument. [The workers] are attacking one of the principles of capitalism, and on that level they really are confronting the heart of the system. On the other hand, they need to engage with the state and the capitalist system to get those laws that allow them to do what they want. They’re operating in the capitalist economy. They haven’t created a little socialist paradise; they’re trying to make life better within capitalism. It’s an interesting movement because it’s pragmatic, but it’s not just reformist. It’s actually attacking some of the sacred cows of capitalism.”

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