by Kimberly Safford
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 39-40
THE REAL THING is a new documentary film about the trade union movement in Guatemala. A New York filmmaker, who is also a union president, shot it and an international trade union federation based in Geneva produced it.
In February 1984, the owners of a Coca-Cola plant (located about 10 minutes from downtown Guatemala City) informed its workers that, due to bankruptcy, the plant would close the next day. But the 460 workers refused to accept the loss of their jobs and the loss of their union, for which they had fought so hard and which had become one of the strongest unions in Guatemala. So they decided to peacefully occupy the plant until they won their jobs back. THE REAL THING documents this struggle, within the historical context of the Guatemalan trade union movement. The film also shows the union initiated world-wide support for the boycott of Coke, designed to push the company to deal with the workers.
The filmmaker, Peter Schnall, is president of NABET (National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians). The film was supported financially by a "union of unions," the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Associations, (I.U.F.). Founded in 1920, the I.U.F. is a world-wide trade union federation whose founding principle is labor solidarity. THE REAL THING makes many important connections between Central American solidarity work and North American trade unions.
For the film crew and their I.U.F. executive producer, the shoot in Guatemala was a real eye-opener. "We went down as tourists with 20 cases of film luggage," says Schnall. "When we were coming into the city from picking up the film at the airport, some of the workers gave us a little tour. They said,
It was horrific and sad. When we got into the plant, I was startled by the set-up that the workers had established — feeding and taking care of themselves, setting up a community inside this walled-in factory."
The shape the film would take became apparent only after the filmmakers entered the occupied plant and realized it was too dangerous to go in and out. They stayed in the factory for about one week, sleeping in the union hall. Says Schnall,
"Daily the workers received letters and telegrams of support from unions all over the world. They even got a letter from the Australian Refrigeration Union. They knew that somewhere out there people understood what was going on. Also money slowly began to arrive. They knew the world was watching, even though there was no coverage of the occupation in the Guatemalan newspapers. The workers themselves bought radio announcements, in the form of advertisement time, to announce what was happening inside the plant."
THE REAL THING details life inside the occupied Coke factory: the daily meetings, organizing sessions, and unglamorous day-to-day tasks (like handing out the toilet paper). The film strongly conveys the dedication of the workers, and the love they feel for one another. Schnall says,
Although the Guatemalan military harassed the plant almost every night, the film crew was left alone. Schnall is unsure why the Guatemalan government allowed the film to be shot and taken out of the country, since the government obviously knew what kind of film was being made:
Working with the I.U.F. was a positive experience for the filmmakers. The I.U.F. treated them as workers, who deserved respect, autonomy, control over the production, and pay for their labor. This was a new and happy experience for filmmakers who are accustomed to competing for dwindling grants, spending years fundraising, working for free, or paying out of their own pockets. Schnall notes that the I.U.F. didn't demand major changes in the film and gave more money when the project ran over-budget.
But as a result of working for the I.U.F., there are important contradictions in the film. What the workers say about their situation and the references to the Nationalist Jacabo Arbenz government in the early 1950s indicates that the workers are consciously part of the larger revolutionary movement in Guatemala. They don't just want a better contract with Coke, they want a whole new form of government. Their struggle is highly politicized. Yet the film tends, mostly by omission, to reduce this political struggle to a conventional trade union struggle. "If Coke would only live up to its contractural obligations to its workers," the film argues, "then everything would be all right." The film focuses on the international trade union solidarity movement and boycott that forced Coke to negotiate with the I.U.F. Nonetheless, and this is the power and benefit of the film, the reality of the workers and their lives overwhelms these conventional politics. The film is a welcome and valuable addition to the raging debate within the labor movement over U.S. foreign policy in Central America.
By depicting the Guatemalan workers' attempts to retain their jobs at a U.S.-based company, the film makes an important connection between U.S. and Central American workers' struggles, a connection that is crucial for educating U.S. working class people and gaining their support against U.S. policies in Central America.
Filmmaker Peter Schnall was introduced to the Coke workers in Guatemala as a filmmaker and a union worker. He found,
THE REAL THING is an important model for filmmakers and unions working together. For the I.U.F., THE REAL THING was a bold step into making media. The usual information outlets for unions are pamphlets, brochures, speeches or lectures. "Entertainment" is a new concept for unions; as one I.U.F. representative exclaimed after seeing the final cut of THE REAL THING; "It looks like a real film!" Unions in the U.S. increasingly recognize the impact, power, and usefulness of slide shows, videotapes, and films to focus dramatically on and increase awareness of an issue. The next step is for unions to begin making and supporting films on issues they feel are important, to use the media to reflect their own lives and work, to participate in making images of themselves and their concerns. But money is a big factor — making films is expensive.
THE REAL THING is above all, about workers and trade union struggle. Unfortunately, in some cases, the film is being lumped into and lost in the recent spate of films on Central America. One major New York theater, dedicated to screening independent films, rejected THE REAL THING because "we've already shown too many Central America films". The film has, however, received an enthusiastic response at union meetings across the country.
This 36 minute, color, 16mm film is available from Real to Real Productions, 357 W. 36th Street, New York, NY 10018. 212/736-3887. Sliding scales are available for both rental and sales.