A Conversation with Avi Lewis
The Take, 84 minutes
directed by Avi Lewis, written by Naomi Klein
National Film Board and Barna-Alper Productions, 2004
Finally, it is finished. After spending six months in Argentina and shooting 350 hours of footage, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein have completed their first documentary film. “The Take” is a riveting story about a group of metal workers from Buenos Aires who form a worker co-operative and take over the abandoned auto-parts factory where they once earned a good living. In the background, presidential candidates Néstor Kirchner and Carlos Menem go head-to-head in the first major elections in Argentina since the devastating economic collapse of 2001. Argentina is polarized between those who support the nascent worker democracy movement, and those who want to see a return to the elitist politics of the Menem era. Meanwhile, Maty, a young trainee at the worker-controlled Zanon Ceramics Factory will boycott the election process under the slogan: “Our Dreams Won’t Fit on Your Ballots.”
Just days after it first screened in Buenos Aires on a wall outside the worker-controlled Brukman suit factory, “The Take” premiered in Canada at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in Toronto. At a director’s talk, Lewis told the audience of mostly Canadian filmmakers and producers that, “we set out to make a resolutely hopeful film. We had a political quest that we were engaged in, and we wanted to popularize radical political messages.” They also wanted the film to be entirely publicly funded: “It was enormously important to us to do something in the public sphere.” Ultimately, the film was financed by a private/public co-production agreement between the NFB and the Canadian production company, Barna-Alper Productions.
Unabashed Leftists in the Corporate Media
With a feature-length documentary now under their belt, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein have added another element to their job as self-proclaimed “unabashed leftists in the corporate media”. While they hope to see a theatrical release of the film in Canada and other countries later this summer, Lewis insists that it is more important that the film is seen in “every church basement and union hall in Canada.” Most of all, Lewis wants to show his film to Canadian workers who might take over abandoned factories in this country.
While some film critics and political pundits will have little tolerance for its unabashed didacticism, “The Take” holds its ground as a deeply moving and visually impressive film. As a drama, it evokes compassion for the many workers and young people whose lives have been torn apart by the economic collapse brought about by failed neo-liberal economic policies. But, like any documentary that investigates complex social and economic issues, “The Take” can only scratch the surface. Indeed, sometimes making a film about a social issue can lead to even more complexities. In this case, the mere presence of celebrity left-winger Naomi Klein in Argentina for six months added fuel to some of the political fires in that country (see Argentine independent journalist website www.lavaca.org ).
With a view to elaborating on some of the social and political issues that underlie the film, I had an in-depth conversation with director Avi Lewis in April, in Toronto.
Malcolm Rogge: Which social movements in Argentina are at the core of “The Take”?
Avi Lewis: The neighbourhood assembly movement which was an explosion of grassroots street corner democracy at the end of 2001, had a big effect on the making of the film. The Piquetero movement – the union of unemployed workers – is also in the background. But, the focus is on the movement of recovered companies [movimiento de fábricas recuperadas]. This movement is showing a sustainable and very concrete economic path based on principles of collectivism and not individualism. The movement is struggling in the messy middle ground between pragmatism and ideology. It’s proceeding from necessity and not from ideology.
MR: What is the relationship between the Argentine cooperative movement, the unions, and the movement of recovered companies?
AL: The co-ops that make up the movement of recovered companies are worker-controlled cooperatives where people form co-operatives in order to self-manage a business or a plant. The Union tradition in Argentina is a very complex one. During the 1950s and 1960s, Peron built much of his political power by working with unions that were politically indebted to him. During the recent downsizing and factory closures, a lot of the unions cooperated with management or were bought off. Many of the recent struggles started with the workers reclaiming their union or throwing it out. For example, the workers of the Zanon Ceramics Factory had a massive internal struggle to take over the union from the corrupt, company friendly union bosses, and then they took over the factory.
MR: How is the movement of recovered companies organized, regionally and nationally?
AL: There are a number of different factions within the movement, and that’s pretty familiar among the Left all over the world. So far, the movement has resisted the tendency to centralize; it has resisted a hierarchical structure. At one point, some people dreamed of having an assembly of assemblies – a national body of all these little grassroots groups. But, that never really panned out because as soon as an assembly was centralized, the left-wing political parties moved in and tried to take it over. I think that whenever you try to form a national board or a structure that centralizes power you find that specific political interests will try to co-opt that space.
MR: Did you spend any time in the rural sector in the early stages of making the film?
AL: No. The landless movement in Brazil is much more developed and has a long history. It’s a mature social movement compared to the emerging ones in Argentina. We met some groups of autonomous indigenous communities and farming communities that were trying to do similar things in a rural context, but compared to Brazil, they’re really just starting out.
MR: How will the film contribute to the social movements that are featured within it?
AL: We premiered the film in Buenos Aires in the streets in front of the Brukman factory. After they had seen the film, the workers told us: “You gotta show the rest of the world what we are doing and get some international support.”
Meeting the Competition
MR: How do the worker co-ops address the issue of demand at the firm level in the context of the larger economic downturn in Argentina? How did the Forja factory workers address this issue as they were moving towards autonomous control over the factory?
AL: The idea that supply and demand are like weather systems which are not susceptible to planning or policy is a self-perpetrated myth of corporate capitalism. As long as we are living in a consumer capitalist society can we really talk about there not being a demand for auto-parts, not being a demand for bread, not being a demand for books?
MR: Clearly, a significant demand for auto-parts exists in Argentina; but the real issue is whether the Forja workers will be able to access the market and compete with other suppliers. How will the Forja plant compete with the limited resources that it has as an autonomous worker-owned factory? How will the co-op obtain the capital that it will inevitably need to expand production? After all, the motto of the movement is: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”
AL: What they do is start small and build gradually. Forja has started working with a local auto repair shop. They don’t need the capital to buy raw materials because the client brings them steel that he has purchased from scrap metal and recycling. The Forja workers melt the scrap metal in their ovens and make axle assemblies. They work on very small contracts. So they don’t need big capital outlays. And they’re building that way. There are other examples of occupied factories that are working at a much higher level. Zanon Ceramics is the largest ceramic tile factory in all of Latin America. They’ve been under worker control for over three years and they have increased production. They have travelling sales people who go around to different cities in Argentina and the co-op is growing.
MR: Before the economic downturn, the Forja factory was a huge operation. It was tooled to produce auto-parts for a much larger market than what the worker co-op is currently dealing with. In the final scene of the film, a small group of worker-owners are shown in one section of the massive factory. They are back to work. Will the Forja auto-parts factory return to what it once was?
AL: That’s a profound question. I don’t think the factory or the community will return to what they were like before the economic collapse by the efforts of the co-operatives alone. Obviously we’re talking about the impact of national and international global economic trends on local communities. Forgive me, but I detect in this line of questions a desire for a more programmatic solution than I think this movement actually offers. I’m not sure that just the specific tactic of workers taking over workplaces and running them as co-operatives is what the film is about. What’s much more inspiring to me, and what’s much more radical to me about the film is the challenge to ownership.
The Challenge to Ownership
MR: In “The Take,” the challenge to ownership starts with the factory workers taking over the means of production. The Forja and Brukman workers had to fight for the legal right to occupy and take ownership over the productive capacities, as incorporated worker co-operatives.
AL: That’s true, but I would say that the genesis of the challenge to ownership is the recognition, whether stated or un-stated, that the workers have a claim on the factory.
MR: Early in the film, the Forja factory workers reveal that the company owes the workers a large amount of unpaid wages. Is that what you mean by the workers having a claim on the factory?
AL: Yes, and we’re not just talking about unpaid wages… For an example that’s closer to home, take a look at Stelco Inc. in Ontario. The entire steel industry has benefited from generations of public money and it has received hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare. Communities have lived with industrial hazards and have given their lives to the industry. It is a travesty that Stelco Inc. is now manufacturing a bankruptcy and crying poor as a transparent tactic to reduce or eliminate the pension commitments that they have a moral responsibility to honour. In Canada, you can see the idea of the challenge to ownership being applied by First Nations through direct action on resources, forestry and fisheries; in the cities, you can see it through housing occupations. In Argentina, people are actually challenging the idea of who owns the productive capacity of the community. People are saying these are industries that have been mishandled by the governments and corporations, these are industries that have received a tremendous amount of public support and subsidies, tax holidays, and reduced rates for services like gas and electricity. On the other hand, the workers have taken wage rollbacks. And now, after all the insane profits that the companies have made and the disgusting corporate corruption that we’ve watched, the workers lose their jobs? After all this, the companies have to leave because it’s more profitable to do business elsewhere? Well, people are saying: “Go ahead! If you want to leave, then leave; but we’re keeping the productive capacity and we are going to keep working.”Workers vs. the IMF
MR: The global corporate elite put a high value on so-called labour mobility and flexibility. In practice, “labour mobility” really means the mobility and flexibility of capital to pick up and move operations to countries where companies pay lower wages and to where they are able to externalize more of their costs. The companies will also move to where there is laxer enforcement of environmental and worker safety laws. This movement of corporate capital in a “race to the bottom” is encouraged by the policies of the World Bank and the IMF. These and other forces of global corporate capitalism have a profound affect on the ability of the workers to eke out a living in their local communities. How does the movement of recovered companies in Argentina address the global economic policies set by these institutions? Where do they see themselves engaging with the forces that ultimately will affect their ability to reclaim the middle-class lifestyle that they want to have?
AL: I think you’re getting right to the heart of the issue. One of the things that created a middle class in Argentina was free post-secondary education since the time of Peron. You see a much more empowered and entitled industrial worker class and middle class who don’t believe that it’s their fate just to suffer the effects of global policies. The workers are very articulate about how their struggles are defined against unjust global policies. The workers understand that they are a threat to the dictates of the IMF. In the film, one of the characters says, “You know, we have to see whether the IMF likes the fact that we’re running the factory, and if they decide to crush us, then we’re fucked.” It’s true. If the IMF put pressure on the government of Argentina to crack down on the movement, the government would probably follow their wishes.
MR: By taking over the abandoned factories, the movement of recovered companies is challenging the fundamental tenets of the Washington Consensus – private property rights. The IMF and the World Bank consistently push for the “normalization” of property rights to create what they call “certainty and stability” for capital. The recent economic collapse in Argentina, and before that in South-East Asia and previously in Mexico, shows that neo-liberal macro-economic policies have actually undermined “stability” for productive investment. The movement is forcing the government to acknowledge the workers’ moral claim to ownership of the factories versus the owners’ legal ownership. It seems that local governments are beginning to acknowledge that where there is massive unemployment it may be good policy to break the formerly sacrosanct legal bindings that tie deadbeat factory owners to their property, so long as there is a worker co-op with a sound business plan knocking on the doors of the factory (or knocking down the doors, in some cases).
AL: Absolutely, the movement is challenging capitalism itself.
MR: Yes, but the workers also seek legally recognized ownership within the existing economic framework. The film follows the Forja workers as they go through the legal and political channels towards establishing a legally constituted co-operative. At the end of the film, we see that the workers have painted “Forja Cooperativa Ltda” on the factory gate. The film shows the previously unemployed workers succeeding in acquiring a bundle of rights to occupy and use the property as a private worker co-op. They also become managers.
In the Rubble of a Failed System
AL: The workers aren’t just challenging the global rules – they are trying to build something in the rubble of a failed system. One of the things that this movement shows is that people can take advantage of the policy mistakes that have arisen out of the Washington Consensus. Right now, the worker-owned factories are profitable because of the recent devaluation of the currency. The devaluation of the currency followed a disastrous ten-year policy of pegging the peso to the U.S. dollar at one to one. That policy made a tremendous amount of money for a very small number of people, but it made Argentine exports completely unaffordable for other countries in the region because they had to pay U.S. dollars for Latin American products. Argentina’s export industries were destroyed. When the peso was de-linked from the dollar, the value of the peso fell to a third or a quarter of its former value almost overnight. All of a sudden, the export industries became viable again. And that’s why the owners are now circling again because these factories are now more profitable.
MR: In his book Globalization and Its Discontents Joseph Stiglitz discussed the failure of the U.S.-sponsored policy of “shock treatment” in Yeltsin’s Russia. At its core, the “shock treatment” policy was the wholesale privatization of state assets. Stiglitz shows how that policy led to economic ruin in Russia today. He recommends that certain industries in Russia be re-nationalized, at least temporarily. Is there a discussion in Argentina about the re-nationalization of industries?
AL: Astonishingly there isn’t. There is no talk of re-nationalizing the absurdly corrupt privatised public services in Argentina and I believe there ought to be. But, I would also say that the idea that one just trusts that the State will handle these things better than private industry is not an obvious conclusion to come to. I think the cutting edge of activism lies in communities taking control at a local level and establishing systems of accountability. I think that you are likely to replicate a lot of the mistakes that have already been made if you try to create a public service from the top down. The movement for community economic control is building from the ground up. I think those structures hold a lot more promise because they can grow and link together and create an alternative public service. They aren’t going to be imposed by a State, which can ruin the public service the same way they did when they privatized it.
MR: Do you think the movement of recovered companies can grow to the point where it can have influence over regional and national economic policies in Argentina?
AL : I want to be really honest and really realistic here, we’re talking about 15,000 workers in a country with millions of people unemployed. We’re talking about 200 factories in a country that has not recovered from the vicious violation and pillaging of the international financial community and the multinationals. This is a drop in the bucket. It’s a beautiful little circle of candlelight; but it’s a candle in a storm. For me, this is not a film that offers a programmatic response to global capitalism. It’s not a film that offers a ten-point plan. The desire for a ten-point plan is one of the problems. I think we need to listen to the new social movements that are emerging out of pragmatism and not ideology. We need to figure out ways that those principles and some of the tactics can be applied in our own context.
What’s Next for Unabashed Leftism?
MR: If you make another film – and hopefully you will – what will you do differently?
AL: Making your first film is pretty scary because you don’t have the confidence to say, “Okay, I’ve got the story. Okay, I’ve got the scenes.” I don’t know if I could have made this movie any better; but, I think I could have made it with less anxiety, less anxiety communicated to the crew and the people who were around me. With a more experienced eye, I would have been able to know when things were slipping into place. It’s a bizarrely mystical process making a film. You work so hard for so long to create moments where spontaneity can occur. But all you can do is create the conditions for real human moments to emerge. You have to try to stay alive and awake to serendipity, you have to constantly listen to the shifting winds of whatever situation you’re in. I think that over time you develop more clarity when you see something unfold and you say “Okay, that’s it, that’s in the film, that’s the character, this is the situation that sums things up, and now I can stop shooting.” “The Take” has a kind of industrial retro aesthetic, which we didn’t plan, and which I don’t particularly share. I don’t have a soft-focus romanticism for heavy industry. We went to find the cutting edge of global activism and we ended up in the heart of the old economy. That was interesting and challenging in a lot of different ways, but if we had ended up with a group of bakers who took over their bakery, then the film would have had a lot of bread in it.
Malcolm Rogge is a filmmaker and writer based in Toronto. He is a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial collective.