Drama Behind Reality TV Cameras Puts Producers on the Line

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This is a cross-post from the Metropolitan Washington [D.C.] Council’s Union City.

Inhumanly long hours, cruelty, frayed nerves. And that’s just behind the cameras at reality shows. “It’s scary and nerve-wracking,” says Sevita Qarshi, a producer walking the line Thursday outside the Realscreen conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C.

Qarshi has worked on a number of reality TV shows and says that the working conditions for the men and women producing the popular programs are just as dramatic as those in front of the cameras.

It’s just awful. Incredibly long hours, many of them unpaid, no sick days, no health insurance, no job security and constant stress.

The target of Thursday’s picket lines, organized by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), is ITV Studios, a U.K.-owned television production company. The WGAE has successfully organized six major production companies and is fighting to win a contract with ITV, one of the conference sponsors, which is refusing to sign a deal with the WGAE even though the employees voted to organize four years ago.

The action was part of the industry-wide campaign to organize some 2,000 writers and producers of reality and nonfiction TV programming in New York City. Said WGAE Director of Organizing Justin Molito, as picketers chanted nearby:

Reality and nonfiction TV employees are victims of rampant wage theft and, in many cases, receive no health benefits at all. Unfortunately, this sort of freelance precarious labor is spreading into more and more industries.

“We get to work with a lot of great people,” said Qarshi, “but ITV wants more for less, and everybody’s overworked and stressed out.” Winning a union “would mean we have rights.” She added:

It would stop the intimidation, and help us feel appreciated for our hard work.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Grand Budapest Hotel’s Story of Worker Solidarity

Wes Anderson’s new film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a lovely paean to a lost era but it’s also a subtle story of workers and worker solidarity.

Set mostly in the 1930′s in the fictional central European nation of Zubrowka, the film’s heroes are the concierge and lobby-boy at the Grand Budapest, a luxurious hotel where bejewelled and top-hatted Old European nobles — the 1% of the day — enjoy the finer things in life.

As usual in Anderson’s films, the story, as convoluted and entertaining as it is, is less important than the quirky characters and intricately detailed sets on which the film plays out. After all the rushing about, what stands out this time is the sympathetic portrayal of the nobility of the work done by what today are simply called service workers.

While Grand Budapest concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) is tyrannical and exacting in his attention to every detail in the vast hotel — click here for Gustave’s lobby-boy job interview while walking briskly through the lobby issuing commands in all directions — he is also fiercely loyal to his fellow workers, which not only sets the film’s main plotline in motion but ultimately exacts a costly price. And when Gustave winds up in prison, his dedication to his work there quickly earns him the loyalty of even the most hardened prisoners. The unwavering commitment of young lobby-boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) to his job, to the hotel as an institution and to Gustave as his boss and colleague, will be perfectly understandable to any union hotel worker today.

Young Zero’s apprenticeship as a lobby-boy and the pastry-maker’s dedication to her craft also resonate as memories of bygone days when work had implicit dignity in a job well-done and respected, if not by the oblivious hotel guests then by other workers.

In one of the best scenes in the film, Gustave, on the lam and stranded in the middle of no-where, activates the network of European hotel concierges to rescue him. It’s the sort of organization that would probably have been called a guild or mutual aid society in those days. A union, in other words.

All filmmaking by definition is teamwork among professionals and colleagues in which everyone has a job and must effectively carry out that work both individually and as part of the collective whole. Anderson, like his protaganist, is legendary for both his work ethic and attention to detail as well as for his generous collegiality, and that solidarity shines through brilliantly, on-screen and off, in “Grand Budapest.”

Chris Garlock is the Director of the DC Labor FilmFest, celebrating its 14th year in May-June 2014 and this year anchoring the first annual DC LaborFest, a monthlong celebration of labor arts and culture in May 2014. Details at www.dclabor.org

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From the Cheap Seats: Why “Elysium” Could Have Helped Prevent the Government Shutdown

Chris Garlock, Union Cities Mobilizer for the Metro Washington Council, directs the annual DC Labor FilmFest, coming up October 11-17 in Washington, DC.

According to ancient Greek religious cults, Elysium was the afterlife for mortals related to the gods. Later, it was expanded to include those chosen by the gods. But with the federal government shut down over the Tea Party’s antipathy for Obamacare, I was thinking about a different cult entirely. And a different version of Elysium.

In Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction action-thriller, Elysium is a luxurious space station high above the overpopulated, devastated Earth in 2154. While Earth’s poor and working-class residents are policed by ruthless robots, Elysian citizens live safely in disease-free comfort thanks to medical devices called Med-Bays.

South African director Blomkamp — whose 2009 sci-fi film District 9 brilliantly used discrimination against aliens to take a new look at apartheid — didn’t need to construct sets for his new film: the scenes on Earth were shot in a dump in the poor Iztapalapa district on the outskirts of Mexico City, while the scenes for Elysium were shot in Vancouver and in Mexico City’s wealthy Huixquilucan-Interlomas suburbs.

With a muscular performance by Matt Damon, the film’s emphasis is on the action-thriller elements, but if I were trying to sell Obamacare I’d schedule around-the-clock free screenings of Elysium in every community center in the country. Damon’s character Max, an assembly line worker, is put in motion when he receives a lethal dose of radiation in a classic factory accident. This harrowing scene alone should be required viewing for every safety inspector and assembly line boss in the country. Max’s only chance for survival is a Med-Bay, and the rest of the film involves his attempts to reach Elysium, and how he must unite with fellow oppressed Earthlings to have any chance at all. Ultimately, the film makes a fairly convincing — and emotionally satisfying — argument in favor of universal free healthcare, but unfortunately that remains a Hollywood fantasy.

The murderous insistence of Elysium’s ruling elites — led by Jodie Foster — reminded me painfully of the Tea Party and GOP’s insistence on blocking Obamacare at any cost. What the film makes clear is that efforts to deny basic rights to the majority must inevitably jeopardize the privileges of the minority. That this lesson must apparently be learned at the cost of disrupting the lives of millions of American citizens is shameful, especially when it could have been achieved for the price of a movie ticket.

From the Cheap Seats: Elmore Leonard, Craftsman

Chris Garlock, Union Cities Mobilizer for the Metro Washington Council, directs the annual DC Labor FilmFest.

American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard – who died this past week at 87 – was, above all, a craftsman. His writing was famously spare but not just because much of it was dialogue. Leonard built sentences like a master bricklayer or stonemason, choosing each word with care, selecting for maximum impact, laying them out in lines so perfectly wrought it seems they were always there.

Take the opening to “Get Shorty,” the 1990 novel that earned Leonard his much-deserved broader popularity after John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito starred in the 1995 movie directed by Barry Sonnenfeld:

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.

This is not flashy writing meant to dazzle the reader. It’s straightforward, workmanlike storytelling. Like you’d just parked yourself on a barstool in a neighborhood beer joint, and the guy next to you launched into a tale with no preamble or what Leonard called “hooptedoodle” in his 10 Rules on Writing—a word that sounds exactly like the nonsense that so many glib writers inflict on their weary readers these days.

Leonard’s books are jam-packed with memorable characters who are fascinating not just because of their colorful, snappy dialogue, but because they’re real people, working people. Get Shorty’s Chili Palmer collects for a loan shark, Raylan Givens (Pronto and Riding the Rap) is a deputy U.S. Marshall, Vince Majestyk (played by Charles Bronson in the 1974 film) is a former U. S. Army Ranger instructor and Vietnam War veteran. And those are just a few of Leonard’s main characters. His books – and therefore the movies made from them – are a full-employment program for secondary characters whose lives are so fully realized that they often wind up in other novels, sometimes even emerging from the shadows to take the spotlight, as Givens has in the popular FX series.

Like any good craftsman, Leonard has left a well-built and extensive legacy, comprising nearly 50 novels, in addition to short stories and a growing body of films based on his work. Whether you’re interested in watching a master at work or simply want to enjoy a good tale well-told, Elmore Leonard’s stories are well worth exploring.