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DOCLISBOA 2020

It's all work and no play at Doclisboa's panel "Thinking labour practices through film"

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- During an online panel at the Portuguese festival, labour rights (or the lack thereof) became the focus of the conversation

It's all work and no play at Doclisboa's panel "Thinking labour practices through film"
The panelists

The online event on 28 October, organised as part of this year's edition of Doclisboa, began with a short celebration of a new partnership with the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work (EU-OSHA) and its Healthy Workplaces Film Award, originated in 2009 and this year given to two German productions: Rules of the Assembly Line, at High Speed by Yulia Lokshina, as well as Jonas Heldt's Automotive [+see also:
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, pondering the value of work in the age of digital revolution. The award – as reminded by EU-OSHA director, Christa Sedlatshek, who sent a video message – funds subtitles in multiple European languages and promotes winning films through a series of screenings and debates hosted by its national network.

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Mentioning that both films address such complex issues as “profitability, relocation, robotisation, uncertain working conditions, immigration and work accidents,” Sedlatshek added that health and safety at work really is everyone's concern: “it's good for us and it's good for business.” Leena Pasanen, director of the Biografilm Festival and former director of DOK Leipzig, where the awards were given out for the last few years, called the collaboration “one of the highlights of her year,” arguing that the award in question can significantly prolong a film's lifetime.

The introduction was followed by the online debate “Thinking labour practices through film,” with filmmakers Elisa Cepedal (behind Work, or to Whom Does the World Belong [+see also:
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), Lee Anne Schmitt of California Company Town and Heldt, fresh off his win, discussing their respective films and their subjects. Cepedal, who decided to focus on the industrialisation of mining communities in Northern Spain, where she grew up, admitted the subject matter was very personal. “I was depicting something I know very well, but it was important to have some distance,” she said. “I wanted to capture the loss of class consciousness.”

Change, in one way or another, was on everyone's mind. “For generations before us, work would determine life like nothing else. Now, we have a chance to deal with it more freely,” argued Heldt. Schmitt, whose film was the first in a series, talked about how moving from Chicago to California made her think about a different labour landscape. “The denigration of labour rights in the United States from the 1970s to now is profound. Workers don't really have many rights, they have given up this belief that they should,” she noted. “This idea of work that should provide any support or care is under assault. Another thing I have seen is a real loss of any separation of who you are as an individual away from your work.”

Moving away from the struggles depicted in their films, they also discussed the specificity of their own, often quite lonely profession. “I try to do as much labour as I can on my own,” said Schmitt, with Heldt chiming in: “I tried to have a very 1960s approach and form a collective, but people [behind the financing] want to believe in one person who is creating the film. I think about how we can involve people in front of the camera, also when it comes to rewards, although it's a question of ethics as you turn your protagonists into actors,” he added.   

Asked if their films could be viewed as a part of the workers' fight, they seemed hesitant, with Schmitt pointing out that today, materials shared on YouTube or social media can be more helpful. “Looking at our films, there is something happening that's more about contextualising a process historically, which is less immediate,” she said, with Cepedal arguing that it's no longer a filmmaker's role to give voice to those who don't have it, although it might have been so in the past. But, as pointed out by Heldt, it's a topic that everyone can recognise. “At parties, people always talk about jobs. They form ‘job groups,’ and all of them wonder how their job is going to change in the future. If I can identify with the protagonist's struggle, that's when the film is successful,” he said.

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