Cinema Politica Concordia: Fast food workers in New York fight for rights and wages in The Hand That Feeds


Still4credit: Jed BrandtDiego Iba–ez, left, and Mahoma L—pez in a scene from the documentary filme The hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt
Diego Iba–nez, left, and Mahoma Lo—pez in a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

The Concordia branch of Cinema Politica gets back into gear for the 2015-2016 school year with The Hand That Feeds, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.

The award-winning documentary, written, directed and produced by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, follows fast-food workers in Manhattan as they struggle for decent wages, safer working conditions and respect. A brief description on the website of The Hand That Feeds reads: “Shy sandwich-maker Mahoma Lopez unites his undocumented immigrant coworkers to fight abusive conditions at a popular New York restaurant chain. The epic power struggle that ensues turns a single city block into a battlefield in America’s new wage wars.”

Mexican immigrant Lopez worked at an Upper East Side branch of a 24-hour deli called Hot & Crusty Bagel Cafe. Employees were underpaid and often verbally abused. They were not entitled to vacations or sick days. In a six-minute video “Op-doc” called Occupy Bakery that Lears and Robin Blotnick made for the New York Times, Lopez remarks that “consumers want to buy organic food, and they worry about how animals are treated. . .but why aren’t these same values applied to people?”

In the text that accompanies their video, the filmmakers state: “In the early 20th century, immigrants were at the forefront of the labor movement that helped build our middle class. Today, when the fastest growing job sectors are retail and food preparation, the struggles of low-income workers and their families matter more than ever. Turning these jobs into living-wage jobs while fixing our broken immigration system would lift millions out of poverty and benefit our entire economy by increasing consumption and tax revenue. Mr. López’s story is part of a growing wave of low-wage and immigrant workers organizing across New York City and around the country that has the potential to spark this kind of change. It’s time we admit it: America runs on the labor of the undocumented. Their struggle for rights, inside and outside the workplace, is an inseparable part of our democratic project.”

To me, it seems both moral and logical that people receive a decent salary for their hard work. And yet, a short review of The Hand That Feeds in Mother Jones magazine mentions a scene that shows “a co-worker counting out the $290 he’s just received for a 60-hour workweek. . .” Other articles about fast foodworkers in New York indicate that some work as long as 72 per week without receiving any overtime pay.

It’s important to note, as well, that Hot & Crusty was not some mom-and-pop operation, either. According to an article on the web site Waging Non-Violence,  it was a “corporate restaurant chain backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm.”

Many enthusiastic reviews have been written about The Hand That Feeds. IndieWire calls it “a rousing chronicle” and a “well-plotted and captivating David & Goliath story,” calls it “suspenseful and inspiring” and the Village Voice says that it’s “filmed with the urgency and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller.”

In his review, Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter points out that Lopez is a “likeable, camera-friendly personality,” while Jen Chaney of The Dissolve reminds us that the fight was very much a group effort: “The victories in the effort to establish the Hot & Crusty Workers’ Association speak to what happens when multiple individuals channel their efforts toward a worthwhile cause. The employees at Hot & Crusty stage protests, organize picket lines, and circulate flyers, but their actions have the most impact when they are joined by people in the community, fired-up change agents from the then-burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, and members of other unions who rally behind their cause. By building the documentary around an ensemble cast, Lears and Blotnick demonstrate, in terms of content as well as filmmaking, that the voices of a few can galvanize the voices of many.”

In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt
In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

In a Women and Hollywood article for IndieWire, co-director Rachel Lears was asked: “What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?” Her reply was: “I would hope that people leave the theater with an invigorated sense that it’s possible to stand up – individually and collectively –  and create meaningful, local change that really affects either their own lives or those of others.”

If you watch the trailer for The Hand That Feeds that’s just below this blog post, you’ll see that someone has remarked; “minimum wage jobs are for highschoolers. . .” Kevin Jagernauth of the The Playlist tackles that misconception in his review of the film: “What’s most astonishing in watching the documentary is the commitment these workers have to keeping the kind of jobs that many presume are disposable, given to high turnover, or simply a waystation or rite of passage on the way to something better. What “The Hand That Feeds” admirably makes clear is that these aren’t teenagers or students earning extra cash on the side. These are men and women with responsibilities to their spouses and children, with rent to pay, and other expenses, who don’t have the luxury to quit and find something else. Each paycheck matters, but by the same token, while they are willing to work hard, there is only so far they will allow themselves to be abused, not just by management, but by a system (particularly in the food industry) that regards their efforts as minimal, unimportant, and replaceable.”

Directed by Rachel Lears & Robin Blotnick / United States / 2014 / 84 ‘ / Spanish – English / with English subtitles
Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.
Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., H-110, Montreal
The screening is part of DisOrientation 2015, co-presented with Solidarity Across Borders and Concordia Food Coalition, and will be followed by a discussion with organizers and members of the Immigrant Workers Centre – Montreal. The venue is wheelchair accessible.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Discover Grace Lee Boggs, an exceptional American

Philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs in her Detroit home.
Philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs in her Detroit home.


There aren’t any dull moments in the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.

The philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs will turn 100 in June, but in this film, which was released in 2013, she still has all her wits about her. Even more impressive, she still talks about revolution and social change, and does so in Detroit, her home since the 1950s. She has so many stories to share and hasn’t given up hope that people can work together to make a better world. She warns against placing too many expectations on political messiahs, though. She suggests that “We are the leaders we are looking for.”

Grace Lee’s father owned a big Chinese restaurant on Broadway in New York. She tells us that this gave her a comfortable home life, but she also reveals that her mother had never gone to school, and that she could not read or write. Grace Lee herself earned a BA from Barnard College and a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. Despite those qualifications, cracking the job market was not easy. In those days, she says, even department stores would not hire “Orientals.” She got a job at a library at the University of Chicago that paid $10 per week. She lived in a rat-infested basement and came into contact with the black community when she joined the struggle for better housing.

By the 1940s the Depression was over for whites but not for blacks. The U.S. was gearing up for war but the owners of defense plants would not hire black Americans. Activists began planning a July 1 protest march on Washington. An estimated 100,000 people would take part. To keep the march from happening, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defense industry. Grace Lee was very impressed by this example of people power in action. As she later told Bill Moyers: “When I saw what a movement could do I said, ‘Boy that’s what I wanna do with my life.’ ”

She went to Detroit because that’s “where the workers were.” She married James (Jimmy) Boggs, who was an auto worker, writer and activist. Until his death in 1993, they worked together in the labour movement and the Black Power movement; they knew Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Their home was a meeting place for thinkers and organizers.

The film includes the derelict buildings we’re used to seeing in reports on present-day Detroit, along with scenes from the past – the prosperous past and the violent one, too. Some parts of the city look a bit like Montreal, with the same kind of buses we used to have; there’s a dark stone building with arches, kind of like The Bay department store on Ste. Catherine St. And then there’s the snow, Detroit seems to get quite a lot of snow, too.

There’s evidence that Detroit’s downhill spiral began much longer ago than one might think. Back in the 1930s as many as 95,000 people were working in one of the plants belonging to the Ford Motor Co., but by the late 1950s automation was already leading to layoffs.

The soundtrack includes “Run, Charlie, Run” a tune by The Temptations about white flight from the city to the ‘burbs. I count myself as a Motown fan, but I can’t remember ever hearing that one before. I wonder if it’s ever played on any “oldies” radio stations?

Philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs, left, and filmmaker Grace Lee.
Philosopher, writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs, left, and filmmaker Grace Lee.

The film is directed by Grace Lee, who is no relation to Grace Lee Boggs. They have stayed in touch since 2000 when the filmmaker began work on The Grace Lee Project, a film about several Asian-American women who share the same name. (The Village Voice review of The Grace Lee Project says that Grace Lee Boggs is called Grace X by her neighbours.)

To learn more about Grace Lee Boggs, check out this book list; it includes books that she wrote and books that influenced her.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs will be presented by Cinema Politica on Monday, April 13, 2015 at 7 p.m. in H 110 of the Hall Building at Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Admission is by voluntary donation.

For more information, visit the Facebook page about the screening.

Cinema Political will show films at various outdoor locations during the summer, but American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is the last presentation at the Hall Building for the 2014-2015 academic year.


Cinema Politica Mondays: Regarding Susan Sontag


Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.
Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.

We can rely on Cinema Politica to bring us interesting documentaries throughout the school year. Tonight’s selection is Regarding Susan Sontag. Sontag was once one of the more visible intellectuals in the U.S.

I haven’t seen the film, but I certainly want to, based on several very enthusiastic reviews that I found. How often is a documentary film reviewed by newspapers, and Vogue and The Economist? Interesting company!

Nathan Heller in Vogue:   “She saw writing as a personal act that bore global responsibility. ‘I didn’t feel that I was expressing myself,’ she’s quoted as saying in Regarding Susan Sontag. . . ‘I felt that I was taking part in a noble activity.’ ”
In Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Ken Eisner writes:
“this (film) should be seen by anyone with an interest in language and history.”

He also says that it “looks at how the great essayist (and not-so-great novelist) was viewed before the role of public intellectual became obsolete.”

But, but. . . don’t we still need “public intellectuals?” What do you think? On with info about the film.

Robert Lloyd In The Los Angeles Times: “Sontag’s best writing gives one permission to see things in a new way — or makes it impossible to continue to see them in the old one.” “Among American intellectuals, she was the rare rock star, and though her work stands on its own with allowance made for any writer’s ups and downs, her personal magnetism is very much part of the story; she was a thinking person’s pinup, friendly and formidable, impish and intense, bright-eyed, wide-smiled, with a head of hair that amounted almost to a signature.”

Susan Sontag wrote a lot of books! Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.
Susan Sontag wrote a lot of books! Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the U.S. writer and intellectual, will be shown in Montreal on Monday, March 30, 2015, by Cinema Politica.

J. Bryan Lowder in Slate:  “Ten years after her death, Sontag’s supreme writerly confidence remains both an inspiration and a terror to would-be critics and public intellectuals, and for good reason—she was the embodiment of a certain school of serious, morally committed, iconoclastic, and often deliciously haughty 20th-century criticism.”  “. . .what this film provides, is an honest introduction to the person—in this case, a person who comprised qualities both deeply admirable and terribly off-putting in equal measure. Watching Regarding Susan Sontag, I felt awash in that person, carried aloft on the waves of her exquisite curiosities and pulled by the undertow of her messy personal life, suspended in the trough between the figure she wanted to be and the human being she was. . . I thoroughly enjoyed Kates’ attempt to do justice to that package—the whole package—sex, uncertainty, hubris, and brilliance, all mixed up together.”

BTW: Lowder’s review reveals that there is such a things as a master’s degree in criticism. Go ahead, call me naive, but I had no idea! Learn something everyday!

More details about this screening and Cinema Politica can be found on the Cinema Politica web site. According to the web site the “screening will be followed by a Skype Q&A with director Nancy Kates. Venue is wheelchair accessible.”

REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG, directed by Nancy Kates, / United States / 2014 / 100 ‘ / in English
Monday, March 30, 7 p.m.
Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., H-110

Admission: Pay what you can – $5 to $10 are suggested amounts.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Documentary Children 404 shows how anti-gay law endangers Russian LGBT teens

Image from the Russian documentary film Children 404
Image from the Russian documentary film Children 404

Countries are often called Motherland or Fatherland. How sad is it when a country can’t love and accept all of her children equally? How sad is it when flesh-and-blood parents turn their backs on their own children and say things like: “You are not normal, you are sick, why did I ever give birth to you?” Or worse yet: “You are a son of Satan!”

The documentary film Children 404 presents compelling evidence that homophobia is rampant in Russia, and that a law passed in 2013 has encouraged anti-gay vigilantes while also keeping many already wary and isolated teens in the closet.

This law bans propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” aimed at minors. In effect, that means that it’s illegal to offer support to gay teens – to tell them that they are normal, that they are not freaks of nature, and that they are “not the only one” – that there are many other people around the world just like them.

The film is named for the web site Children 404 (Deti-404 in Russian) which serves as an online meeting place for teens who might not have anywhere else to go. It was created by journalist Elena Kilmova; after she wrote an article about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) youth, she received email from a teen who had been suicidal until she read the article.

The name is inspired by “Error 404, page not found” a message that often comes up on the Internet. Klimova chose it because Russian society is seemingly telling gay teens that they don’t even exist. It gives then a chance to say “We are here!”

not found

More than 22,000 joined the group; 1,364 shared their stories.The film features excerpts from the messages posted on the site. Many are heart-rending, filled with sadness and despair. One mocks the idea that anyone would possibly “choose” to be gay. “Hey kids, be gays! Everyone hates us, humiliates us, beats us up – this is so cool!”

Few teens dare to tell their parents about their orientation, for fear of being thrown out of the house. The father who accepts his daughter and is proud that she is different is a rare exception.

A Guardian article about Error 404 quotes a “16-year-old from a small town ‘which isn’t even on the map’.” He says “Our school is considered progressive, but it is quite normal for teachers to say that homosexuals will burn in hell.”

Another Guardian article from 2013 says that “an MP in the Siberian region of Zabaikalsk called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.”

Elena Klimova was 25 when the film was made. She doesn’t look much older than a teenager herself, which is remarkable considering the stress she must have been under for years. She reveals that she and her partner lost their jobs because of their orientation. They were both told to resign. Almost all the same-sex couples she knows want to leave Russia, but she does not want to go. She looks forward to a future when the present-day situation will be described as the “stone age,” and she hopes that it won’t take decades to arrive.

Klimova has been taken to court twice over the web site, in the most recent case, she was fined 50,000 rubles, approximately $740 U.S. An online notice from Amnesty International, dated March 18, 2015, says the the “Prosecutor’s Office in one of St Petersburg’s districts had submitted a request to have the Children 404 group. . .closed down.” Readers are urged to support Klimova by writing to Russian officials in protest.

Elena Klimova, founder of the Russian web site Children 404, which gives gay teens a place to express themselves and seek advice and support.
Elena Klimova, founder of the Russian web site Children 404, which gives gay teens a place to express themselves and seek advice and support.

Forty-five members of Error 404 participated in the filmmaking, with some sharing footage shot on their cellphones. But an articulate young man named Pasha receives the most screen time. When he visits his former school, the presence of a cameraman doesn’t stop students from yelling insults and throwing things at him. What do they do when they aren’t being recorded?

Pasha says that one of his teachers had said that gay people “should be burned and banished,” and that the school social worker and psychologist told him he was the one with a problem, because he couldn’t accept homophobes. “If you find love for them, they will find love for you,” they said. As if.

Rather than follow their surreal advice, Pasha’s solution is to move to Canada, home of his idol, Justin Bieber(!) He says “I am convinced that after seven years I will have a family, small kids and a house.” He also says that he plans to study journalism and possibly enter politics. He’s obviously a strong, smart and very determined guy, though I wonder if he has checked the price of Toronto real estate lately, or the sorry employment prospects for journalists in North America. All the same, I wish him the very best in his life here.

I have a suggestion, too. There’s a scene at a memorial to Lenin where Pasha sings a slightly fractured version of O, Canada. It sounds like he’s singing “We stand on guard for free.” Once he learns all the words, why not invite him to sing the anthem at some public event?

Pasha Romanov visits a friend before leaving Russia for Canada, in a scene from the Russian documentary Children 404. (Romanov now calls himself Justin, in honour of Justin Bieber.)
Pasha Romanov visits a friend before leaving Russia for Canada, in a scene from the Russian documentary Children 404. (Romanov now calls himself Justin, in honour of Justin Bieber.)

The web site Queer Russia says that vigilantes and policemen with machine guns tried to disrupt the premiere of Children 404 in Moscow last year. Police “checked the IDs of the audience, looking for minors and writing down passport data of some people.”

I’ve been asked to include this information: “Cinema Politica is presenting the Quebec premiere screening of CHILDREN 404 on Monday, March 23, 2015. Directors Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev will be in attendance all the way from Russia for a Q&A after the screening! The event is co-presented with Radical Queer Semaine, Concordia Documentary Centre, Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and Queer Concordia.
More information can be found about Children 404 here:

While I wasn’t asked to share this info, I am happy to tell you that Cinema Politica was instrumental in getting the film made. The CP web site says “Cinema Politica co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, along with CP Board Member and Concordia University Research Chair in Sexual Representation and in Documentary Thomas Waugh and his colleague Ryan Conrad, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise essential funds for this project. We eventually surpassed our goal and were able to raise $11,575 U.S. towards the making of CHILDREN 404!” The film’s credits says that all the money usedto make it came from crowdfunding. You might notice that some names appear several times, too.
Directed by Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev / Russia / 2014 / 70 ‘ / Russian / English subtitles
Monday, March 23, 2015, 7 p.m.
Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., Room H-110
Montreal, Quebec

Directors Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev will be there. (I predict that the first question they’re asked will be “What can we do to help?”)
Suggested admission is $5 to $10.

Cinema Politica Mondays: Righteous pranksters The Yes Men are coming to Montreal! Meet them and see their latest film!

If you’re already familiar with The Yes Men, the following information might be all you need from me: 7 p.m., Monday, March 16, 2015, Room H-110, Concordia University.

For the rest of you. . . The Yes Men are bringing the latest documentary about themselves, The Yes Men Are Revolting, to Montreal. This is the third film about them, so they must be pretty interesting, right? Right! And the film was invited to the Toronto Film Festival in 2014 and the Berlin Film Festival this year.

The Yes Men are multi-talented multi-taskers. They are authors, activists, co-conspirators, inspired impersonators, performance artists, political pranksters, practical jokers, rabble rousers, social-justice warriors. Or, to put it more briefly, they’re “the good guys.” (Well, I think so, and I know that many others do, too.)

The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, though they are aided and abetted by hundreds of like minded souls. They use humour, chutzpah and their considerable wits to expose injustice. They hope that their antics will shame corporations or politicians into doing the right thing.

The Yes Men are canny users of the media. They often get their message out through phony web sites, phony press releases, or at press conferences where they impersonate someone in a position of authority.

Their most audacious prank was on BBC TV in 2004. On the 20th anniversary of a deadly chemical leak in Bhopal, India, Bichlbaum impersonated a “Dow Chemical spokesman” who said that the company would take full responsibility for the disaster and spend $12 billion on clean up and compensation. (Dow Chemical had bought Union Carbide in 2001, but refused to accept any responsibility for the victims or for cleaning up the site, which was still contaminated, 20 years after the leak.)

At least 8,000 people died within 72 hours of the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant, 15,000 more died in the following years, and 100,000 had debilitating illnesses “for which treatment is largely ineffective.”

The hoax got lots of international attention, though sadly it did not prompt Dow Chemical to change its stance.

The Yes Men have impersonated representatives of the World Trade Organization, Halliburton,
U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. They even have “Canadian content.” During a Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen they created several fake web sites that said Environment Canada was committed to making huge reductions in greenhouse gases, and that Canada would pay $13 billion in compensation to African countries that were adversely affected by climate change. They spoofed an oil and gas conference in Calgary, and they put Justin Bieber’s face on an asthma inhaler. (That was on a web site created to mock greenwashing by coal companies. You can read the post I wrote about it here.)
When reviewing the previous films, The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) some critics wrote that they would have liked to know more about what makes the Yes Men tick, what prompts their activism. While I’ve not seen The Yes Men Are Revolting, reviews I’ve read indicate that we do learn more about the day-to-day lives of the duo and how their political work has an impact on their family relationships.

There is no fixed price for admission to the screening of The Yes Men Are Revolting, it’s a pay what you can situation, though the suggested price is $5 to $10.
I suggest bringing some extra cash, in case there is some The Yes Men merchandise for sale. Their online store has T-shirts, DVDs, posters, books, spoof editions of New York Times, New York Post AND “one Survivaball: Couture for Climate Calamity. Extremely Limited Edition – $10,000.00” I suspect that the last item is a joke. The thing does exist, but are they really selling it? Maybe we will find out on Monday night.

The Yes Men Are Revolting, directed by Laura Nix & The Yes Men / United States / 2014 / 90 ‘ / in English

Screening, with The Yes Men in attendance, at 7 p.m., Monday, March 16, 2015, 1455 de Maisonneuve West, Room H110, Concordia University, Montreal

The Facebook Event page is here.

Learn more about The Yes Men here.

Learn more about Cinema Politica here.