A film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, distributed by Celluloid dreams. DVD, 2004, 87 minutes, color.
In his epic 1968 documentary The Hour of the Furnaces, Fernando Solanas called on his fellow filmmakers to use their medium both to celebrate the disenfranchised majority and to call it to action. When Furnaces—a four-hour-long people’s history of Argentina—was re-released in 1989, Solanas declared, “The circumstances that motivated the movie have changed, but many of the problems we denounced in it have continued or worsened.”
History largely proved him right: Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis saw the mass collapse of the country’s financial institutions, leaving more than half the country living in poverty (some sources put the figure as high as three quarters for 2002). Shot during the following two years, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take captures the aftermath of the crisis, and it in large part heeds Solanas’s exhortation, if in its own, 21st-century way.
The film tells the story of what it calls “the largest sovereign debt default in history” through Freddy Espinosa, a worker at Forja San Martin, an auto-parts factory on the outskirts of greater Buenos Aires. Like countless Argentines, Espinosa is left jobless after his factory closes. But rather than despairing, Espinosa launches “the take,” embarking on a quest to expropriate Forja and begin production anew under worker supervision, with the help of his co-workers and an organization called the National Movement of Recovered Companies.
The Movement champions worker sovereignty with its slogan, Occupy, Resist, Produce, which many workers throughout Argentina have adopted. Following the economic collapse, more than 200 factories were seized and reopened as cooperatives. At the beginning of the film, Espinosa and friends enter their deserted factory for the first time since its closing, taking the first step toward expropriation. “It’s strange,” Espinosa says. “The place used to be full of pigeons. Now I don’t see a single one.” Their eyes water at the sight of their old workplace, as they reminisce about the days of stable incomes and financial security.
Now, jobless, they face not only practical problems like hunger and debt, but also feelings of degradation and exclusion. “A jobless man is a humiliated man,” laments Maria, Espinosa’s stricken wife, in a later scene. Amid interviews with her, the filmmakers present more scenes detailing the arduous task of expropriation. As it turns out, staging a “take” is far more involved than the name implies. The workers are forever traveling to and from the courthouse, appealing to judges and politicians to allow them to continue the piecemeal process.
Lewis visits other factories around Argentina operating efficiently and responsibly under worker control. Foremost among these are the Zanon tile factory and the Brukman suit factory, whose workers pioneered the expropriation movement. At Zanon, Lewis focuses on Maddy, a young, pregnant activist employed by the cooperative. Maddy expresses the younger generation’s discontent and growing skepticism of Argentina’s political processes.
“I’m not voting,” Maddy declares, referring to the 2003 presidential election, as she points to a graffito that reads, “Our dreams don’t fit on your ballots.” Later, we are introduced to Maddy’s mother, a staunch Peronist, as she hands out ballots to the neighbors and shepherds supporters to a rally for Néstor Kirchner, who eventually won the election. The film digresses a bit in its preoccupation with Maddy and her mother, seeming to forget about the recovered factory movement as it launches a broader attack on the Argentine political system. Here, the film bites off more than it can chew, straining to tie the workers’ struggle to larger problems of political representation and the woes of neoliberalism. While these connections are real, Lewis interrupts the film’s flow to drive home politics already implicit in the smaller, more personal stories told by the workers. That is, he thins out the stories of the workers to reinforce a political statement, rather than allowing the stories to speak for themselves.
While parts of the Zanon visit seem tangential, Lewis’s attention to the Brukman suit factory fits in nicely with the larger narrative. A group of 50-odd seamstresses renowned for seizing their defunct factory, the Brukman workers are now widely recognized in Argentina for their solidarity and just treatment of employees. One former worker talks about how her colleagues rallied to support her financially and emotionally during chemotherapy treatments. But the idyllic moments at Brukman are interrupted by a violent conflict with police following an eviction order. After protesters (mostly older women) are tear-gassed and beaten back by a line of riot cops, the factory door is closed and padlocked.
It is here that The Take most powerfully recalls Solanas’ Hour of the Furnaces. Though the infamous nightsticks of the 1960s have been replaced with water cannons and tear gas, state violence remains a principle theme. When he made Furnaces in the late 1960s, Solanas portrayed the police as minions of the ultimate villain, neocolonialism, to which he attributed the dire statistics listed in his film: In those days, half of Argentina’s land belonged to less than 1.5% of the population, while three quarters of Argentine workers were unable to meet their basic needs.
For Lewis, neoliberalism is the new neocolonialism, responsible for today’s similar ratios of inequality. And just as Furnaces linked neocolonialism to the policies of military dictator Juan Carlos Ongania, former president Carlos Menem appears in The Take as the poster boy for neoliberalism. Having privatized many public services, imposed convertibility, and sold public assets, Menem is widely credited with precipitating the debt crisis. As a Forja worker observes in The Take, “Menem sold everything, sold the country.”
While Solanas exposed physical violence in many scenes, he also emphasized what he called “daily violence,” a subtler, more insidious type of oppression. “To dominate man one needs neither napalm nor toxic gases,” asserts one of Furnaces’ intertitles, as workers are shown punching time cards and filing mechanically out of a factory. This daily violence reappears in The Take, having progressed to a new stage under globalization, with many workers marginalized, cast-off, and forgotten. Lewis recounts the plight of workers throughout the third world who, after attempting to organize and improve their lot, find that the multinationals they work for simply move to a new town and find a new crop of people to exploit. But The Take spotlights an alternative, as the workers fight back, reclaiming their jobs and agency.
Taken together, both documentaries are extremely useful in understanding Argentina and other developing countries. The issues they broach are universal, though their cinematic techniques differ dramatically. Furnaces is a prime example of militant cinema, shot on a Super 8 camera in gritty black-and-white. Solanas employed virtually no talking-head interviews in the film, favoring deadpan shots of peasants’ faces or shadowed silhouettes against the dusty pampa, and moving deftly from footage of knife fights and urban squalor to stunning shots of the countryside and back.
Though Furnaces, with its militant style, verges on propaganda, it never seems doctrinaire. Solanas’s combination of political conviction and artistic prowess enables the viewer to accept or reject his proposals while being swept along by the film’s incisive storytelling. And it rings truer, somehow, than The Take, which sometimes feels less compelling than its predecessor. Visually and technically a typical documentary, The Take relies heavily on voice-over and interview, and does itself a disservice by employing the occasional cliché, such as using birds and babies to represent problematic concepts of “hope” and “the future.” But The Take does offer a host of inspired moments and chronicles a critical phenomenon at a critical point in Argentine history. The difference is that while Furnaces reorganized history, The Take applauds the people who continue to reorganize society, almost 40 years later.