On the evening of Friday, April 29, filmmakers Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird arrived at Metrograph on Ludlow Street to provide an introduction to their 1979 documentary The Wobblies, to be followed by a Q&A session. Shortly before the event, they were informed that the Q&A would no longer proceed as planned. They were not told why.
A statement Kino Lorber, the indie distributor for the recent re-release of The Wobblies, gave IndieWire that same evening contained a hint or two. It praised Metrograph for remaining “true to their commitment to show this film about the most radical labor movement of all” — the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in Chicago in 1905 as a union of sawmills, factories, miners, and other workers — despite “recent chatter of labor unrest within Metrograph’s walls.” Kino Lorber also expressed sympathy with “Metrograph’s concern that the Q&A might be co-opted by activists seeking to use the opportunity as a platform to air their grievances rather than focusing on the important issues in the film.”
By the next day, the complete quote had disappeared from IndieWire’s reporting without a trace, leaving only the distributor’s statement attributing the Q&A cancellation to “circumstances beyond anyone’s control.”
Speaking about the original statement, a member of Cine Móvil — a group that describes itself as “mobile cinema spreading revolutionary culture” — expressed dismay at Metrograph’s actions.
“That’s essentially saying that the documentary about IWW, one of the most radical labor groups in this country, is not the appropriate venue for people to speak about labor issues that are affecting them — the actual workers in these theaters where these films are being shown,” the Cine Móvil member, who asked to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic. “That’s very telling, because it says that they didn’t want to have more attention brought to these issues.”
Allegations of questionable labor practices at Metrograph, though widely rumored about among cinephiles and arts workers, have not been comprehensively reported on, in part because many former employees have signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that prevent them from speaking to the press.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a Metrograph spokesperson said: “Metrograph is passionate about The Wobblies and our filmmakers.” They added that the theater will screen the documentary 25 times over the course of its run.
Metrograph’s eleventh-hour paranoia about the Q&A proved to be misplaced. Shaffer told Hyperallergic that the crowd at the screening was small and that she was “personally disappointed” by its size. Though she said that she did not know anything about labor complaints at Metrograph, speaking more broadly to the labor movement today and “people like Jeff Bezos,” Shaffer asked, “What are they so scared of? They might make a little less money — that’s true — but workers are entitled to a fair wage and decent working conditions.”
“Today, in 2022, The Wobblies feels so relevant it’s almost frightening,” Shaffer added.
Cine Móvil began about a year ago as a collective seeking to bring people together through film, at a time when they were looking for transformative change but were hampered by pandemic restrictions that kept movie theaters closed. The group hosted screenings at a variety of places: public parks, abandoned lots, rooftops, and indoor venues in colder months. Last August, in their largest event to date, they put on an Anti-Fascist Film Festival that attracted hundreds of people and raised close to $1,000 for local mutual aid groups.
On Saturday night, Cine Móvil organized a “counter-screening” of The Wobblies attended by over 50 people, including members of the Film Forum Union, Anthology Film Archives Union, and current and former workers at Metrograph and Netflix.
“After the screening, we opened up the floor for a discussion around labor issues within the industry and how to build power within various institutions,” said the member of the group. “They were building a shared awareness of how we can essentially move forward, just giving each other advice or suggestions to take with them into their workplaces and calling out bad practices within the spaces that they work.”
Cine Móvil already had experience organizing a “counter-screening”: At the end of March, when workers at Anthology Film Archives went on strike, the group screened Buster Keaton’s Cops, a 1922 anti-cop silent comedy that had been showing at Anthology.
“We thought it would be a way of calling out institutions like Anthology and Metrograph. Institutions like these are oftentimes screening very leftist, radical, anti-capitalist work. But those values aren’t at all represented by how they treat their workers,” the Cine Móvil member said.
The screenings double as a critique of the ownership of rights surrounding reproduction. “The workers are the ones who make everything happen, yet they don’t own the cinematic art. But workers are equal stakeholders and partners in the labor they are producing,” they added.
“This documentary, which is a historical document of radical history, is not just a work to be seen from the past that has nothing to do with the present. If we leave it to the past and consign it to the dustbin of history, then it’s dead,” the group member said. “We were able to have a beautiful dialogue on it.”
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