An Indian-American rom-com. An L.A. hip-hop documentary. An orchestra from a Paraguayan landfill. Latino bakery workers fighting for labor rights in New York. This year’s Diversity Film Series, organized by Tacoma Community College and hosted at The Grand Cinema, is back, and its six films cover a swath of social justice and family issues.
Opening Sunday and continuing through April 27, the series has become a mini-festival, bringing together films from around the globe showing life in very different cultures.
This year’s lineup includes “Meet the Patels,” a 2014 U.S. romantic comedy about an Indian-American love triangle; the Oscar-nominated “Straight Outta Compton,” a 2015 documentary about hip-hop in 1980s Los Angeles; the 2015 “Mustang,” following five sisters in Turkey rebelling against arranged marriage; “Landfill Harmonic,” the popular 2015 tale of a young orchestra creating music and hope from Paraguay’s trash; “Saving Face,” a 2004 U.S. drama about Chinese-American women whose loves go against cultural expectations; and “The Hand That Feeds,” a powerful 2014 documentary about Latino bakery workers in New York who channel the Occupy Wall Street movement to create their own union for labor rights.
“There are so many great films out there that we never really have a theme, but it seems like this year all the films are about social and family issues,” said Tina Celentano, the Tacoma Community College organizer of the series.
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The Diversity Film Series’ six films span three countries and six cultures
Now in its sixth year, the series is drawing more people from the college and the wider community, Celentano says.
“I feel like it’s finally getting a toehold in the community, and getting involved with the curriculum on campus,” she said.
The involvement this year includes a Skype question-and-answer session with filmmakers Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears after the 2 p.m. screening of “The Hand That Feeds” on April 27. The pair have a history of activist filmmaking, and they discovered this story in real time while documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement. Undocumented Latino workers at the Hot & Crusty bakery-café were fed up with the extreme hours (up to 96 per week), lack of sick leave and other exploitative conditions, and went through training and help from Occupy activists to finally form their own union — and win decent working conditions.
The film went on to festivals, theatrical releases and a $36,000 Kickstarter campaign, with PBS screenings coming up in June and recent digital release on iTunes and Netflix.
The News Tribune talked to Blotnick via email about filming such a real-time event, and why this is a story that needs to be told.
Q: You originally got into this story via documenting Occupy Wall Street. What were the challenges of that? How did the bakery workers feel about your filming their struggle?
A: When Occupy Wall Street started, it felt like a new historical moment unfolding right in front of us. My directing partner Rachel Lears and I were quickly sucked into documenting protests and creative actions. Rachel started attending … meetings and it was there that she met the Laundry Workers Center folks and Mahoma and Gonzalo from Hot & Crusty. At that point, the workers were already partnering with Occupy activists, so they were remarkably open to us from the start. The LWC organizers would sometimes get nervous about us filming backroom meetings and stuff, but the workers never minded the cameras on them. They really wanted their campaign to succeed and for the film to serve as an example for other immigrant workers.
Q: And then it led to the kind of real-time action filming that's not common in a documentary, which has gotten the film compared to a Hitchcock thriller. Tell us about the filming challenges of this kind of coverage.
A: I don’t think either Rachel or I had ever worked on a documentary with such a sense of real-time urgency. At one point early on we consulted with the labor organizers about how a story like this might unfold, and we wrote up a sample synopsis of how it might go for a grant application. We didn’t get the grant, so I guess they didn’t believe us. But bizarrely, almost every dramatic twist and turn we hoped for came true! It was a thrill but also a crazy experience, having to pick up our equipment and run to the picket line every time the phone rang. It didn’t help that the film was almost entirely unfunded until after the main story arc had completed, so we were working freelance gigs on the side. We didn’t run into any trouble filming the police in these tense moments, though we did sometimes have to remind them that it’s our legal right to do it.
Q: What are the implications of this film on future labor struggles, especially for undocumented immigrants?
A: I think the film depicts a growing grassroots movement to organize low-wage and immigrant workers. It’s been happening in the workers center movement, largely under the radar and without much help from big organized labor, for a decade or more, and its been recently re-energized by movements like Occupy, the DREAMers, and the union-backed Fight for $15. I know the stars of this film want their story to inspire other workers in the same boat to start their own campaigns, and in a few cases in New York City, at least, it already has.
I think the film depicts a growing grassroots movement to organize low-wage and immigrant workers.” -
Filmmaker Robin Blotnick
Q: What is the role of film in changing social issues, especially in this digital age?
A: In the documentary funding world, there’s a whole lot of new focus on “impact” and complicated metrics to measure how a film can make change, but as a filmmaker it just feels good to hear from people after a screening that our story inspired them to want to do something. We never expected this film to change a lot minds, though I hope it does change the way some people feel about unions or immigrants. Our main hope is that it can inspire people to overcome their fear and cynicism, just like the workers at Hot & Crusty did, and put their necks on the line and take a stand. As one of the heroes said at one point, “If we can do this, anyone can do this!”
TCC Diversity Film Series
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, “Meet the Patels” with gala following; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, “Straight outta Compton;” 2 and 6:30 p.m. April 19, “Mustang;” 2 and 6:30 p.m. April 21, “Landfill Harmonic;” 2 p.m. April 24, “Saving Face;” and 2 and 6:30 p.m. April 27, “The Hand that Feeds.”
Where: The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $10; $8 matinee or student; $2 for Tacoma Community College students.
Information: 253-593-4474, grandcinema.com.