Sunday, 1 December 2019

Films about industrial action (on the occasion of the UCU strike, 2019)

As the Universities and College Union strike goes into its second week, I find myself moved to blog about it. Followers of this blog will have noticed it's been a bit quiet recently.

(More accurately, it's been like this recently:)


Unfortunately, blogging is one of the things I found much less time for as work has got more and more hectic. This is one of the issues that lies behind the strike (the link downloads a pdf with key issues around academic workloads).

But I have found blogging hugely rewarding over the years and I want to pick it up again, and so I'm taking the opportunity of the strike to talk about movies.

There's a grand tradition in Higher Education of the 'teach out' during industrial action, where students and staff come together to talk about ideas off campus as an alternative to cancelled classes and/or to crossing the picket line. I wanted to think about films that could allow us to talk through ideas about industrial action.

There are more moving and entertaining films about strikes out there than we might think! The ones I know reflect my own filmgoing and TV-watching generation:

Brassed Off (Herman 1996) is a musical about the miners' strike.

Bread and Roses (Loach, 2000) is based on the 'Justice for Janitors' campaign, waged by janitorial workers in Los Angeles who were trying to unionise.

The title Bread and Roses is based on the song of the same name, apparently originally inspired by a speech by the American union activist Rosa Schneiderman on the occasion of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

The 2004 BBC miniseries North & South is a romantic drama based on Mrs Gaskell's social realist novel about industrial unrest in the cotton mills of the north of England. Come for Richard Armitage's brooding but beautiful baritone, stay for the friendships across strict nineteenth-century British class boundaries:

Made in Dagenham (Cole, 2010) is the story of Rita O'Grady and the women machinists at Ford in Dagenham who went on strike for equal pay in 1968, which was followed by the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Pride (Warchus, 2014) is about the miners' strike and the activism of a London-based group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners:

The film also includes a beautiful rendition of the song 'Bread and Roses':

Other films that have been suggested by friends and colleagues include I compagni, starring Marcello Mastroianni, a film about a textile workers' strike in Turin in the late nineteenth century:

(From a #filmtranslationhistory perspective I cannot help noticing that nothing is said in this vintage American trailer about the industrial action itself, though there's plenty of the Mastroianni-as-star and women-in-their-undergarments typical of contemporary US perceptions of Italian cinema).

John Sayles's Matewan is set during a coal miners' strike in 1920 in West Virginia (see here for Sayles talking about some of the film influences on Matewan, which include The Organizer):

Kevin Brownlow's 1975 film Winstanley, a historical drama about Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, is available to watch on the BFI player.

For fans of Russian cinema and silent film I must mention Eistenstein's silent 1925 Strike and Pudovkin's 1933 silent Deserter, both watchable in various versions on Youtube.

On Tuesday last we saw Comrades, directed by Bill Douglas, released in 1986, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Run, do not walk, to see this film (though be aware that it is 183 minutes long). It has recently been re-released and looks brilliant on a big screen.

On Monday afternoon I will be showing Pabst's Kameradschaft [Comradeship] (1931) at Twentieth Century Flicks video shop on the Christmas Steps. This is a film not about industrial action but about international solidarity between workers, which was not available for many decades but has now been re-released. The film was shot in French and German as a way of respecting both communities equally. Bristol folks who would like to come, please DM me on Twitter.

Again, run rather than walk to see this film. It's a lost treasure, and one of the first films to be released in the UK with English subtitles (by Paul Rotha). The re-release has new subtitles.

I hope these suggestions for filmwatching will help to inspire and energise my fellow strikers and our students, many of whom have been providing stalwart support in the form of hot drinks, cake and solidarity. Suggestions for more good films about industrial action are warmly welcome in the comments.