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Showcasing the Best of Working-Class Cinema

Movies are a uniquely powerful medium to depict working-class life in its full richness. The DC Labor Film Fest, which ends this weekend, has collected the best such worker films for streaming.

Still from La camarista (The Chambermaid) (2018), one of the festival's featured films.

In America, class consciousness can often be tough to find. Throughout most of my high school and college life — the late Bush years and early Obama years — labor and class were not things I ever really thought about. It wasn’t until my college had a workers’ films series, where I watched Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in my junior year, did I start to even consider what a worker was or who was working class. The film’s depiction of an aging wrestler and stripper was soul-crushing, telling a bleak story of how labor harms the body over time and the ways industry and capital casually spit people out after using up their physical abilities. In a nation said to be made up of people who consider themselves “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” instead of workers or laborers, visual media is a uniquely powerful medium to expose viewers to ideas about labor.

The DC Labor Film Festival, a festival dedicated to showcasing movies about work, workers, and workers’ issues, started in 2000, organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council and the AFL-CIO. Chris Garlock, the festival director and a member of the Metro Council, told me that the major goals of the festival are to get cinemagoers to think about “work and workers in a context they’re not really conditioned to think about them.” Garlock maintains that films like Mike Judge’s Office Space and Nick Park and Peter Lord’s Chicken Run have just as much a place in the circle of workers’ cinema as do John Sayles’s Matawan or Ken Loach’s Kes.

The festival’s twentieth edition, playing now online at the AFI Silver Theatre virtual cinema through Sunday, June 6, includes recent festival hits like Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Miss Marx, Lila Avilés’s The Chambermaid, and Ezequiel Radusky’s The Lunchroom, acclaimed documentaries like William Greaves’s Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, and some classic Hollywood cinema like Robert Siodmak’s The Whistle at Eaton Falls. 

The theme every year is obviously related to work, but that can be loosely defined. Garlock says his collaborators “like to keep it broad.” As is expected of a labor film festival, the goals for exposure, audience interaction, and growth are all aimed toward collective organization and collaboration. Garlock has been working on the Global Labor Film Network, wherein different labor film festivals from across the country and world collaborate on ways to introduce more audiences to labor issues and workers’ rights causes through cinema.

Can cinema realistically help change the way people think about labor? Garlock recalls a time he was working at an edition of the Labor Film Festival in Dublin, Ireland, when a man who hated unions showed up at the door and let Garlock know about it. “But when he came out, he basically said, ‘I get what you’re talking about.’ We were showing Office Space. That isn’t an organizing movie, but it still helped people understand the systemic power imbalance and top-down hierarchy of capitalism.” The Dubliner “is the kind of guy I think is really important to reach . . . the ones who have no sense of class consciousness but still aren’t fully closed off.” 

The highlighted features of this year’s fest include Miss Marx, a biopic on Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, who was a major figure in the fight to recognize women’s labor rights and the elimination of child labor as part of the socialist cause. Susanna Nicchiarelli’s stylish, charismatic depiction of Eleanor paints a nuanced portrait of her struggle to bring women into the center of the labor rights argument.

Another stunning work, more minimalist and informed aesthetically by other landmark worker films like Jeanne Dielman and Rosetta, is Lila Avilés’s The Chambermaid. Centered on a maid in a high-end hotel in Mexico City, Avilés’s camera focuses its attention on the monotonous experience of service workers, disturbed by occasional jarring moments of disparagement and mistreatment. 

It’s completely interior, barren, and echoey mise-en-scène simulates for audiences a closed and isolated existence in the midst of a bustling expensive hotel in a major city — a stark example of how class and income disparities create rigid, invisible barriers that separate people into two worlds even within the same space. The Chambermaid’s inclusion in the festival is part of the fest’s vision of getting people to think about work and labor on a global scale, and find the commonalities of labor issues and struggles across cultures and nations.

The DC Labor Film Festival continues to be an entry point for moviegoers to think about labor as central to the fabric of the American experience, and consider workers in America not as individuals struggling alone but a class that can become powerful. The DC Labor Film Fest closes this weekend. You can buy tickets to stream its movies here.