Left wing documentaries have mostly been about the sorry state of the world. But as Drew Turney learns, director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein’s sortie into the fray, The Take, is a message of hope.
‘Mark Achbar says the first question he gets asked in Q&A’s is ‘okay, we’re mad, we can see what’s happened, now what do we do?’ ‘The Take is what we do.’
That’s how Canadian activist filmmaker Avi Lewis describes his films’ place in the scheme of things. Achbar, part of the trio behind The Corporation, says he considers The Take a companion piece to his movie about the rise and abuses of multinational corporate power.
It was that corporate power — strong-armed by the IMF, World Bank and the shock therapy tactics employed across Latin America during the 1990s — that drained Argentina of capital virtually overnight.
Since the Peron era, it had been as much a first world country as the US, Australia or Canada, with an industrial economy and a skilled, technical labour market. But when it was earmarked for ‘transition’ to a full market economy (letting foreign corporations pick up state owned utilities for a song) the house of cards came crashing down. Forty billion dollars was driven out in armoured trucks in the middle of the night, the savings of the middle classes frozen, and workers awoke to find their factories padlocked shut and deserted.
It was in this sorry state of affairs that Lewis found a ray of hope — the factory occupation movement, where workers who hadn’t had jobs in months broke back into their workplaces, got the machines running again and took over operations themselves. But that was only the beginning — they needed the law on their side for the right to start producing commercially again.
The story of the Forja auto plant workers is the one we see in The Take, and as Lewis explains, it could have gone either way. ‘I was hoping for a happy ending the entire time,’ he says, recalling the months he and Klein spent watching and filming as events unfolded. ‘These guys were the first factory occupation we managed to capture when they actually did it. Once we had that, that was it. We threw our lot in with this group, and whatever happened to them would happen in the film.
‘So they said ‘we think in another seven or eight days we’ll be producing” it took two months. I was out of time, I was out of money, I had to go home and start editing. We were four days from our final cut when I got the email saying ‘we’re doing our first run of parts this weekend, do you want to come down and shoot it?’ So we bent the rules of time and space, flew down there and shot the ending and it just transformed the film.’
As a filmmaker and activist, Lewis is an interesting mix. He has an encyclopaedia-like knowledge of the social justice scene, and he says with a smile that he’s seriously caught the filmmaking bug, admitting that Hollywood has already come calling with offers to rework The Take into a narrative feature.
But his heart seems more set on the job of smoothing the way for change, something he’s obviously passionate about. After running around a teargas-strewn street battle, flying back and forth between Argentina and Canada and trying to get your debut film cut together, you’d have to be.
‘One of the jobs of activists, filmmakers and activist filmmakers is to give a society portraits,’ he believes. ‘Ones that allow people to see the connection with other people in society and how close the crisis is to them. People watch our film and recognise those factory workers; that’s their uncle, that’s their cousin, that’s their mother. When they see these workers in Argentina are so much like us it helps narrow that distance and we realise we’re not as safe as we think we are from that happening in Canada or Australia. It makes it much harder for Europeans to watch the film and say ‘that has nothing to do with us, they’re just colourful peasants’.’
The Take would also have made an informative book (Klein’s medium of choice thus far), but to Lewis, it was all about the image. ‘When you see those middle class people smashing bank machines and the woman with the Diet Coke kicking in the window of the bank, there’s no way to describe that with the same impact in writing, you just have to see it.’
It’s just one of the many potent images in The Take, and if the imagery is anything to go by, Lewis might be a documentarian to watch.