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Still fromThe Women of Brukman: Revolutionary Spirit in the Wake of Argentina’s Economic Meltdown.
(dir. Issac Isitani, 2008). Used with permission from The Cinema Guild.

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  issue 2.2 |  

Journal Issue 2.2
Fall 2010
Edited by Agatha Beins, Deanna Utroske, Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, and
Karen Alexander

Editorial Assistant: Julie Chatzinoff


Women Organize! Directed by Joan E. Biren. New York: Women Make Movies, 2000.
Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader’s Diary. Directed by Alex Szalat. New York: Icarus, 2004.
The Women of Brukman: Revolutionary Spirit in the Wake of Argentina’s Economic Meltdown. Directed by Isaac Isitan. New York: The Cinema Guild, 2008.

Reviewed by William Corlett


When asked about ‘the revolution’ at a small college lecture in New England many years ago, Angela Davis advised an eager audience to keep working on organizing their communities in preparation for an uncertain economic future. She didn’t have the “bam, bam, bam...don’t question...we’ll just tell you” style of organizing that advocate Mandy Carter warns about in Women Organize!. Many women, no longer excluded from the direct action of community organizing, are fully engaged in the ‘working across differences’ of democratic leadership. All three of the films reviewed here explore the individual and collective aspects of the cooperation required when people get organized.
           Ten years ago, the widely-respected scholar/activist Rinku Sen narrated a leadership project documentary for the Union Institute Center for Women’s project on women and organizing. Although Women Organize! (32 min.) highlights the efforts of five extraordinary women to train the next generation of leaders, director Joan E. Biren focuses on their specific organizations instead of presenting personal stories. Amara Pérez (Sisters in Action for Power) draws inspiration from her work with teenage girls in direct action campaigns. Lori Lea Pourier (Indigenous Women’s Network) evokes the spiritual dimension of people in struggle when instructing each person to “find your voice, be heard, take a stand.” Stacy Kono (Asian Immigrant Women Activists) finds joy in adding an economic justice twist to adult education programs. Mandy Carter (National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Program) illustrates the grassroots style of leadership she advocates. And Mary Beth Maxwell (Jobs with Justice) stresses the importance of organizing for decent wages. Designed to spark discussion on organizing tactics and strategies while inspiring any audience I can imagine, this short documentary would work well in community study groups and those undergraduate sociology and political science courses that include community-based research, grassroots leadership training, and youth organizing.
          Alex Szalat takes a related, but more individuated, approach to women’s leadership in Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader’s Diary (51 min.) on the moment in 1909 when young Clara Lemlich, speaking in Yiddish, called for the “uprising of the 20,000” garment workers in New York City. This film centers on the subject’s diary entries about her life and the strike, while offering only a few clues about her life-long commitment to the Communist Party. Read sometimes by Isabelle Hurtin and sometimes by Lemlich’s daughter and grandchildren, the words of her diary reveal the family life at stake in the firm resolve of early “female unionism.” Other materials supplement the story of Clara Lemlich “finding her voice, being heard, and taking a stand.” Viewers learn about the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and Lemlich’s life as a mother and grandmother. Historian Alice Kessler-Harris comes on the scene to remind us that the strike showed the world that “women could hold fast the way men could hold fast,” despite the fact that they were often beaten by thugs, arrested by the police, and ridiculed by other men in their lives. And she is quick to add that, although Clara Lemlich was the spark, the strike was called by thousands of others walking out of the shops in solidarity.
        Such a tribute to the courage and social commitment of a Jewish labor leader, who fought the injustices associated with resulting outrages, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, belongs in college classrooms engaged in the history of feminism and labor, especially those stressing the personal lives of the men and women involved. The family interviews in Clara Lemlich supply the most compelling scenes of these artfully interwoven textual materials. But this film does not seek to explain the struggles it mentions; nor does it mention in detail Clara Lemlich’s commitment to radical politics throughout her long life.
        In the film Women of Brukman (52 min.), director Isaac Isitan documents a collective response to economic uncertainty in Argentina when the economy collapsed in 2001. Although the future of the worker solidarity portrayed here is not entirely clear, one cannot help but admire, while it lasts, the six workers (mostly women) and their fellow workers who convert the private garment factory called Brukman into a worker-controlled collective. Celia Martinez, the central subject, joins Matilde Josefina Adorno, Delicia Regini, Juan Carlos Regini, Liliana Torales, and Nilda Bustamente in a long journey that begins by protecting their factory when money owners flew the coop–leaving behind the inventory and machines–on the eve of a major recession. Charting their political socialization as they negotiate with others in the streets to protest this injustice, this film gives ample footage to respecting the work of these garment workers, from bookkeeping, to cleaning, to stitching, to ironing, to selling the products. In the end, this group of self-organized workers turns to the National Movement of Recovered Factories, an organization that opposes the nationalization of private firms in favor of worker control without state ownership.
          Setting aside the question of whether rejecting nationalization signals a relapse back to private ownership of the means of production, this film overflows with signs of worker resistance to the exploitation and domination of capital. In place of wages and the everyday decisions of management, the newly formed cooperative insists upon paying everyone the same percentage of the surplus and deciding all policies by majority vote in worker assemblies. In the translated words of Celia Martinez: “We’re dangerous employees because we know how to run a factory...we’ve tasted the forbidden fruit. We don’t want bosses anymore. They are no longer necessary.” In the defining moment of this film, on the brink of exhaustion after eight months and eleven days of camping outside the locked gates of their factory, Celia Martinez is shown leading an unruly crowd through the streets against corporate and state power with a wisdom that saved many lives that night. The stakes were high for her and the collective. Her coworker Juan Carlos Regini, who takes charge of ironing the garments, explains it this way: now that Brukman belongs to the workers as a result of a nonviolent takeover, “we all have full names.”
        Things work out in this story in part because of the emergence of a new lawyer, one opposed to the politics of left-wing organizing and right-wing conspiracy. Students could be expected to debate the outcome in classes devoted to Latin American politics, labor history, feminist economics, socialist political thought, and local women’s responses to globalization. But regardless of the outcome, the women of Brukman refuse to choose between individuation and collective action; by the end of the film we know about their lives, their struggle, and the power of organized people in times of economic collapse.
        Whether exploring the collective power of well-organized communities, the courage of singular individuals, or the creative spark that comes from working through the individual-collective relation, each of these films brings the topic of resistance back into classroom discussions about the possibility of revolutionary change.

William Corlett has been working in Lewiston, Maine, teaching political theory at Bates College, since 1981.


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