It seems not a day goes by that there isn’t a story in the news focused on worker’s rights around the globe. From Amazon making headlines every other week due to the exploitation of their warehouse employees, our current national administration’s anti-union rhetoric, the increasing use of automation and robotics to take over manual labor jobs, and the very recent United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors taking place around the country and right here in Rochester, labor issues are woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives.
So it’s no wonder that the Rochester Labor Film Series has found enduring success. Celebrating its 30th year (making it among the first of its kind in the country and the longest-running feature film festival in Rochester), the series presents labor-themed stories that focus on working class issues and interests. And its screenings tend to be packed.
When it comes to labor issues, the surface issues may have changed as technology has altered methods of production, distribution, and transportation, not to mention the increased recognition of individual worker’s rights. But many of the underlying concerns facing workers have remained — from conditions and exploitation of laborers, to the fight for fair wages.
The Labor Film Series was created by Jon Garlock, Chair of the Labor Council’s Education Committee, who’s been co-curator and coordinator of the series since its founding in 1989. He’s now joined by Vincent Saravallo, associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology at RIT, and Jared Case, Eastman Museum’s curator of film exhibitions.
“What’s nice about our group, is you’ve got someone who has experience with organized labor and someone experienced in the medium of cinema, and I come from an academic background,” Saravallo says. “So when we pick films, we know what’s going to work, and we can talk about its cinematic aspects, and its organized labor aspects, and the subjects that I would like to get across to my students.”
The longevity of the series has allowed it to focus on contemporary labor issues while reflecting on how those issues can resurface decades later. Case credits the durability of the series to its focus on community and collaboration. “It’s a partnership between the Labor Council and the Eastman Museum,” he says. “We both have resources that we bring to that collaboration: us with the venue and the ability to access the material and have a place to show it, and the Labor Council with its access to an audience these films are specifically geared for, as well as the expertise in the labor issues.”
Beginning this year on Friday, October 11 (a later start than normal due to renovations at the Eastman Museum), the Labor Series kicks off with a screening of Bill Duke’s 1984 drama “The Killing Floor.” Telling the true story of efforts to organize an interracial union of Chicago packing house workers during and after World War I, it was the film that first inspired the creation of the Rochester Labor Film Series.
All films are shown at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre (900 East Avenue), which will host weekly screenings through December 13. Organizers often invite speakers to come and talk about the movie, either with an introduction or a panel discussion afterward to discuss the issues and supplement each picture with other perspectives on the issues it raises.
On Saturday, October 26, following the premiere of “At War” — a French drama about the closing of an auto plant despite wage concessions by the workers — local UAW leader Dan Maloney will discuss the picture in the context of his union’s strike at GM. Blending live music and classic cinema, the Alloy Orchestra will accompany the screening of the 1929 film “Man with a Movie Camera” on Friday, November 1.
The series has a mission to screen motion pictures that educate as well as entertain, showcasing films from countries around the world in addition to the United States, which can range from documentaries to science fiction and comedies. Many among its most popular selections over the years tie into other social concerns, whether that be immigration, women’s rights, or LGBTQ issues. Garlock points to the diversity of subjects and cinematic approaches as the source of the program’s strength. And it’s not just audiences that have taken note: in honor of its series’ 25th anniversary, the Monroe County legislature passed a resolution honoring the contributions of the Rochester Labor Film Series to the city’s cultural landscape.
Every one of us is a laborer in one way or another, and the issues raised in these films touch us all, in ways we may realize, and others we may not. Which means there’s no fear of the well running dry for filmmakers searching out new angles on these subjects.
“We’re all doing a job, as a passion or as a position to make our lives better, either because of what we’re doing directly or because of the benefits that we get from it,” Case says. “There’s an overarching recognition that labor is not just something you do, but something important to everyone’s existence. Labor is life.”