OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM: Books and Films You May Have Missed

BOOKS

A Dream in Polar Fog
By Yuri Rytkheu
Archipelago, 2005

In this touching story, a Canadian sailor is stranded in the northernmost tip of Siberia and gradually becomes part of a native community there. As he learns more about the natives’ relationship with the natural world and their tradition of helping each other survive in the harsh Arctic climate, he begins to question the cultural values and future of his own civilization.

 

Civil Rights History from the Ground Up
Edited by Emilye Crosby
University of Georgia, 2011

This powerful anthology challenges established myths about the civil rights movement—that it started with an unplanned impulse by Rosa Parks to sit in the front of a bus, that it was the product of Martin Luther King’s vision, that it took place only in the South, and so on. Contributors also examine debates within the movement over sexism, nonviolence, and other issues.

 

Crossing Zero
By Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
City Lights, 2011

Journalists who have been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than twenty years explain the history of American policy toward those countries. Bush’s policies in the region were counterproductive, they argue, and Obama’s are even more so.

 

Drowning in Oil
By Loren C. Steffy
McGraw-Hill, 2011

A columnist for the Houston Chronicle does an excellent job of both exposing BP’s “reckless pursuit of profit” that preceded the oil disaster off the Gulf Coast and giving voice to some of the oil workers and communities who have been affected.

 

Failure by Design
By Josh Bivens
Cornell University, 2011

Economic inequality is growing in America as a result of public policy choices influenced by corporate lobbyists. Working people are paying an “inequality tax” as these policies drive down their incomes and savings.

 

Fields of Resistance
By Silvia Giagnoni
Haymarket, 2011

A writer provides an engaging personal account of seven months spent in Immokalee, Florida, “tomato capital of the world,” during a campaign to pressure Burger King to increase migrant farmworkers’ pay. Through the stories of people she met, Giagnoni explores the human reality behind issues such as immigration, workers’ rights, corporate accountability, the real cost of our food, and more.

 

Green Is the New Red
By Will Potter
City Lights, 2011

Since 9/11, corporate interests have intensified a drive to have civil disobedience and other methods of protest labeled “domestic terrorism” under state and federal laws. Much of this coordinated effort has initially been focused on those who have engaged in direct action on environmental and animal abuse issues. The author does not approve of all tactics these activists have used, but he makes a strong case that new restrictions, drastic penalties, and selective prosecution represent a revival of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Once new precedents are established, he argues, other types of protesters against corporate abuses will be targeted as well.

 

The Sacred White Turkey
By Frances Washburn
University of Nebraska, 2010

A Lakota medicine woman and her granddaughter find a white turkey on their doorstep on Easter morning. Is it a spiritual sign, or just an unusual bird? So begins this entertaining novel about one native community.

 

There Is Power in a Union
By Philip Dray
Doubleday, 2011

This 674-page history of industrial unions in the U.S. provides a useful introductory overview by compiling information from many other accounts in one place. Covering nearly two hundred years in one volume, its weakness is that it only skims the surface of many events and barely mentions the rise of public employee unionism, rankand-file reform movements in a number of major unions, and many other key topics.

 

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home
By Paula J. Caplan
MIT Press, 2011

When veterans who make it home from Afghanistan or Iraq have psychological issues, the standard response is to prescribe therapy and psychiatric drugs. A Harvard-based psychologist argues that in many cases what they are experiencing is a healthy reaction to an inhumane experience, and that therapy and drugs isolate them at a time when they most need honest communication with loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers. She gives detailed, practical advice for non-veterans about how to ask the right questions and how to listen, both so veterans will be able to share what they’ve been through and so the society that sent them into battle will have a better understanding of the wars’ realities.

 

Work Song
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead, 2010

In the tall tale style of the Old West, this novel describes Butte, Montana, right after World War I. A newcomer to town unwillingly gets caught up in the ongoing battle between Anaconda Copper Co. and its union miners.

 

Working the Night Shift
By Reena Patel
Stanford University, 2010

Call centers in India are staffed primarily by women who work at night to accommodate the time difference with the U.S. and other countries. This academic study explores the social impacts.

 

FILMS

Araya
www.arayafilm.com, 2011

A recently restored, stunningly visual, black-and-white documentary from 1959 shows the daily lives of families on a remote peninsula in Venezuela, where for four hundred fifty years the only way to make a living besides catching fish was to collect, stack, and ship salt from the sea.

 

Benavides Born
www.benavidesborn.com, 2011

A Mexican-American student on a girls’ high school powerlifting team desperately tries to earn an athletic scholarship so she can afford to go to the University of Texas. This feature film shows how poverty and racism limit the options she and her friends and family members have despite all their best efforts.

 

Budrus
www.justvision.org, 2009

When Israel began constructing a barbed wire “separation barrier” on Palestinian land, olive trees that villagers depended upon for their livelihood were uprooted. As this documentary shows, Palestinians decided to mount a campaign of nonviolent resistance, blocking bulldozers with their bodies. In a break from cultural traditions, women took an active part in the demonstrations. The protesters were joined by hundreds of supporters from Israel. Israel eventually was forced to reroute some of the barrier so it would not intrude on Palestinian land, but the dispute continues.

 

Hot Coffee
www.hotcoffeethemovie.com, 2011

Americans are losing the right to get justice in the courts as a result of a coordinated campaign by corporate interests and their political allies. This exceptional film tells four stories about individuals who exemplify these attacks on our legal rights. One is the woman who sued McDonald’s after being severely burned by coffee heated to an unsafe temperature—a case many Americans have heard of and few understand. Another is a female employee of Halliburton in Iraq who was raped by fellow employees in a male barracks where she was required to live. She was blocked from suing until recently because of a requirement in her employment contract that she abide by mandatory arbitration (with the arbitrator chosen by the company). Such requirements have become standard not only in many workplaces but in the fine print most Americans sign when they acquire consumer products such as phones and credit cards

 

How to Die in Oregon
clearcutfilms@gmail.com, 2010

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, terminally ill people can get prescriptions for lethal medications so they control the timing and circumstances of their death. This documentary tells the intimate stories of several people who have used this law, including a fifty-four-year-old woman with incurable liver cancer.

 

Human Terrain
www.bullfrogfilms.com, 2009

When the U.S. military realized around 2005 that it was losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it brought in sociologists and anthropologists to teach American soldiers about local customs. The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to training programs where young U.S. recruits do roleplaying and use video simulators to practice encounters they are likely to have overseas. The film also features recordings of military units and their embedded social scientists engaged in field operations in Afghanistan. Social scientists who have chosen not to assist the military argue in the film that the wars are misguided to begin with and that programs to encourage soldiers to grow moustaches so they will look more like the locals really miss the point.

 

Inside Job
www.insidejobfilm.com, 2010

The 2011 Academy Award winner for best documentary explains what Wall Street did that destroyed jobs, put millions out of their homes, and led to massive cuts in schools and other public services. There are a few flaws—it spends too much time on how academic and administration economists are bought off and too little on corporations’ attacks on workers and their unions, for example. But overall it provides a dramatic and understandable account that makes it a great organizing tool.

 

Louder Than a Bomb
www.siskeljacobs.com, 2010

Six hundred students from sixty high schools in Chicago participate in the largest youth poetry slam in the world. This documentary follows four of the teams from the beginning of the school year through the competition and shows what they learn about themselves and about students from other parts of the city.

 

SoLa
www.bullfrogfilms.com, 2011

An hour-long documentary shows massive destruction of wetlands along the Gulf Coast to serve the interests of the oil and gas industry, and how that greatly increased the damage from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

 

The Big Uneasy
www.thebiguneasy.com, 2010

A good companion film to SoLa, this documentary chronicles the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers that allowed Katrina to destroy whole neighborhoods in New Orleans.

 

Triangle
www.hbo.com, 2011

This film reminds us what happens when there are no public safeguards that all corporations must follow. It marks the one hundredth anniversary of the killing of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York. Ways to prevent such deaths—sprinklers; fire drills; adequate exits, stairways, and elevators—were known at the time but were not required and therefore not provided by the factory owners (who collected their insurance money after the slaughter and resumed business as usual). The deaths led to a new understanding of the need for safety regulations in New York and eventually in the nation as a whole. An unusual feature of this documentary is that virtually all the narration and commentary is provided by descendants of Triangle workers and managers.

 

Waste Land
www.wastelandmovie.com, 2010

In this Academy Award-nominated documentary, a successful Brazilian artist living in New York goes home to create a major art project in collaboration with garbage pickers who pull recyclable materials out of the world’s largest dump. The film explores many questions about class, sustainability, personal transformation, and the nature of art.

 

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates www.TheWorkSite. org, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.