From Taste of Hope (all images courtesy Open City Documentary Festival)

“The difference between a regular business and a worker’s cooperative is that people work, but they’re happy. Right?” This is the closing line of Swiss director Laura Coppens’s debut feature, Taste of Hope (2019), which screened recently at London’s Open City Documentary Festival. It encapsulates one of the main questions that emerged from this year’s program: What does it mean to work in a globalized capitalist society, and can it make you happy?

Taste of Hope follows a tea factory in the south of France. Once owned by Unilever, it was threatened with closure in 2010, but the workers protested and eventually took control after 1,336 days of conflict. (The boxes of tea are labelled with “1336” as a badge of pride.) But now that they’ve gained autonomy, they face the challenge of making profits in a highly competitive market. In lingering shots of the factory, Che Guevara shines through as its patron saint — a meeting room bears his name, an office his face. Wearing red T-shirts and army-green suits, the workers discuss how far they are willing to compromise on their Marxist principles. Will they play down their revolutionary roots so as not to alienate buyers who may not share their politics? Will they sacrifice their weekends for the sake of the factory in the lead-up to a major audit?

From Movements of a Nearby Mountain

There are no weekends at all for Cliff, a self-taught car mechanic living in the Austrian Alps. He’s the lead subject of Sebastian Brameshuber’s feature Movements of a Nearby Mountain (2019). A disused industrial site on a hazy mountainside is both Cliff’s office and his home. He dismantles used cars, haggles with customers, chain-smokes, cooks his dinners, trims his beard, and puts out food for his cat, Mickey. The only time we see him in any other location is when he returns to his native Nigeria to sell off the car parts he has exported. Cliff’s existence is isolated and uncertain. He is a cog in the 21st-century global machine.

And yet there’s a feeling of timelessness to his story. He periodically narrates the myth of the nearby Erzberg ore mine, about a water sprite who is taken hostage and offers its captors “gold for a breath, silver for a lifetime, or iron forever.” They choose the last one. The sense of the eternal mining of goods is of course true of Cliff, who at one point resignedly says to his friend and co-worker, another diaspora Nigerian, “We continue to hustle.”

From Labor/Leisure

The racial inequities in global labor are also brought to the fore in several shorts which screened at the festival. Labour/Leisure (2019), by Canadian filmmakers Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora, takes place in the wealthy Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. The film is bookended by images of a perfectly preened golf course and luxury hillside villa. However, the short focuses on the valley’s largely invisible agricultural workforce, comprised of migrants from the Global South. They pay into Canadian healthcare and pension plans, but as temporary citizens, they do not benefit from these systems.

A similar contrast between work and play is seen in Corina Schwingruber Ilić’s All Inclusive (2018), which takes place on a cruise ship. The tone is distinctly slapstick. Pasty sun seekers jog on treadmills, shimmy in conga lines, and take part in belly-flopping competitions. And yet occasionally we get a poignant glimpse of those servicing the ship. One person’s leisure is another person’s labor.

From The Blessed Assurance

American director Isabelle Carbonelle’s The Blessed Assurance (2018) takes place on an entirely different kind of boat — a jellyfish trawler off the East Coast of the US. The predominantly Black crew works through the night to gather the morning catch. Crisis strikes when one of the fishing nets, originally intended for gathering shrimp, becomes overloaded and snaps underwater. The short is named after the boat, and that name is more a hope than a reality; nothing is assured for these fishermen. All these films make visible the hidden labor which undergirds the global economy, and expose its monotony and precariousness. And crucially, they demonstrate the humanity and resilience of those who dwell in the shadows of society.

The Open City Documentary Festival ran September 4-10 in London.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...