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Revolutionary Spirit in the Wake of Argentina's Economic Meltdown, Jessica Mosby, The WIP, 8 mars 2008

- March 8th - Today we celebrate International Women's Day with our sisters and mothers, aunts and grandmothers, cousins and daughters, and most of all, with our writers, who have become family. On this important day, we find it appropriate that Jessica's review is of a film about a group of remarkable women in Argentina who found their voices and by doing so transformed themselves from victims into successful entrepreneurs. The women of Brukman are yet further proof that women who empower themselves cannot be stopped. - Ed.

Christmas should be a happy time for families to congregate over lengthy meals while watching little kids open presents, but in 2001 Argentina’s economy collapsed a week before the holiday. Almost immediately factories shut down, business owners fled the country, and low-paid workers were out of their jobs just when everyone needed a little extra money. Yuletide joy was harder to find than a job. However the amazing women featured in the documentary film The Women of Brukman didn’t let the crumbling economy destroy their livelihoods, their spirit, or their Christmas.

The ninety minute documentary film, which is currently being screened at film festivals, follows a group of working class women who were employed at the Brukman garment factory in Buenos Aires as they fought for three years to operate the factory as a cooperative. Unwittingly, they started a movement in Argentina that has led to over 20,000 workers forming cooperatives to run over 200 formerly abandoned businesses. Director Isaac Isitan, who is Turkish by way of Canada, met the women while filming another movie in Argentina. He was so captivated by their spirit that he started filming. As he said during the Q&A at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “They are inspiring people!”

One day in late 2001, the workers of the Brukman garment factory arrived for their shifts, only to find that the factory’s owners had fled the country – neglecting to pay anyone! The predominately female workforce decided to go about their jobs just like it was any other day; no one had any extra money and, with the recent economic collapse, few employment opportunities elsewhere. Everyone assumed that the Brukman family would eventually return to Buenos Aires and want the factory back.

Having taken over the factory’s operations, the workers then found documents proving that the Brukman family had evaded taxes and cheated the workers – which could have explained their flight. They also learned that while the factory was profitable, the workers were paid only a pathetic pittance (two to five pesos a week). Before long the workers realized that the bosses weren’t really needed; running the factory was easier than it had seemed. So they kept making men’s dress clothes, while stores kept coming by the showroom and placing orders. The workers, who were only accepting cash, then divided each week’s profits evenly.

Celia, a curly-haired mother of grown children, found her political voice speaking on behalf of the factory during the long struggle for cooperative ownership; she summed up the situation in her traditionally out-spoken way: "We have proven that workers are capable of running a factory without an owner, without any bosses.”

Unfortunately, their utopian system was too good to be true – at least in the eyes of the Argentine government. In March of 2002 the Brukmans’ lawyers had the police evict everyone. The workers protested the eviction and, with the help of a changing political climate, were eventually allowed to re-enter the factory and continue working. But that victory was short-lived. In November the police closed the factory again, this time arresting a number of employees.

In April of 2003 the situation took a fateful turn when police barricaded the factory, shot protestors with rubber bullets, and used water trucks to hose everyone down. Isitan captured the dramatic events with harrowing footage that captivated and saddened me during the screening. The police used the law to justify their violence and only confirmed the reality that the factory workers didn’t have anything but their will to prevail as defense.

But the protestors were not easily silenced. For eight months and eleven days, the women of Brukman protested non-stop. They set up a camp (appropriately named “resistance square”) in front of the factory, and started sewing children’s clothes to donate to recent flood victims. The long months of living in tents with no proper bathrooms took a toll on the mothers and grandmothers who dominated the workforce, but their relentless commitment to the factory and their futures kept everyone going. Most people would not stand up to police once, much less three times; the women’s courage and persistence is nothing short of astonishing.

The workers’ protest chant embodied their attitude: “Brukman belongs to the workers, whoever doesn’t like it can go to hell!

Eventually everyone was allowed to re-enter the factory and the cooperative was granted legal control of the business’ operations and ownership of all the equipment. Today, the factory is a profitable cooperative despite an ongoing struggle over the building. Under the agreement between the factory and the Argentine government, the government owns the building and the factory must make monthly payments to eventually buy the building back. Valued at close to a million dollars, it may take the factory over twenty years of payments to the buy the building. Many of the workers thought the government should have given the building to the cooperative.

The film’s strong political message is conveyed by footage and interviews revealing how the Argentine government favored the wealthy and corrupt business owners over the workers, who were only trying to do their jobs. Despite their documentation that the Brukman family had evaded taxes, neglected to pay its workers, and fled the country, the government was still willing to take the lawyers’ word that the workers had stolen sewing machines and illegally assumed control of the factory’s operations.

“Right before my very eyes, I witnessed a change in power structure: neighborhood and inter-neighborhood assemblies replaced corrupt and fallen governments... When governments lose their legitimacy, mutiny becomes necessary. Argentineans exercised that right by reinventing their local economy and by occupying abandoned factories… As did the Brukman women,” says Isitan in his official director’s statement.

The women of Brukman not only managed to run a large business successfully with no experience or education, but somehow they also summoned up the will to unite against a government that rewarded corruption and the ruthless exploitation of workers. In this context, their struggle and eventual triumph seems even more extraordinary.

But the heart of the film rests in how the workers completely changed the factory’s operations and attitudes; happier workers led to increased profit margins. For instance, the Brukmans had never allowed music or talking in the workroom. Juan Carlos, a young, attractive, pony-tailed technician who maintains the factory’s equipment said that the Brukmans’ policies “stripped him of [his] dignity.” This quickly changed under the cooperative’s management and the workroom atmosphere transformed from morgue-like to lively and fun almost overnight.

The cooperative attitude extended to training: instead of each person only knowing how to do their own job, workers began training each other in an effort to expand everyone’s skills. This meant that the workers and daily tasks became interchangeable – and profits increased accordingly, with workers making 150 to 250 pesos a week. Many found hidden talents. Matilde, a cute and petite maternal type, took over the sales office and showroom and found what she was born to do: sales. She clearly enjoyed her new responsibilities, and relished her successful negotiations with male-dominated clothing stores. Matilde’s newfound confidence proved contagious.

Even though the government did not support the Brukman factory when it was cooperatively run, many Argentina clothing stores patronized Brukman as a way to support local cooperative businesses. The factory in turn hired more workers to meet increasing demands, making a small contribution to help lower the country’s soaring unemployment rate. In one touching scene, the huge presses break while the factory was under a tight deadline to complete an order of 500 pants. Chaos and panic briefly ensued, but then everyone banded together to frantically finish sewing and then ironing the pants.

The film is a true testament to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The workers, some of whom commuted two hours each way on public transportation, never doubted their ability to operate the factory or the validity of their claim. Even though none of the workers had ever had a voice before, once in control of the factory, the women found their revolutionary spirit. Grandmothers who had spent their lives raising a family started reading Karl Marx and putting up posters of Leon Trotsky in the workroom; I half-expected the women to start donning Che Guevera style berets.

Of course, especially during the stressful standoffs with police, conflicts amongst the workers were inevitable: some were ideological disagreements (Marx vs. Trotsky) while others were logistical (should tardy workers be docked pay), but ultimately everyone united. As Delicia, a statuesque woman with a personality to match, says, “What we want now is to be able to work and earn our salaries.”

My only real criticism of the film is that the intricacies of Argentinean political and economic policies were never fully explained; the film seemed to presume that everyone in the audience was already familiar with the government’s policies and terminology. Still, this is a small quibble. The Women of Brukman truly is a spirit-lifting piece of documentary film making.

Watching these women find their talents and their political voices in the middle of their country’s economic meltdown is truly moving. They were among the displaced and cheated workers suffering all over Argentina, but instead of giving up and going home, they took matters into their own hands. Who would have ever thought that a group of underpaid and unhappy workers could start a cooperative revolution that is still going strong today?

About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

Best of Fest: "The Women of Brukman", Daily Utah Chronicle, 31 janvier 2008

Best of Fest: "The Women of Brukman"
Directed by Isaac Isitan
World Documentary Competition

The gripping documentary "The Women of Brukman" tells the incredible story of a group of die-hard women (and a few men) working for a suit manufacturer in Argentina who are abandoned by their employers. The owners of the Brukman Clothing Company, facing bills, deficits and wages they can't possibly pay, ship all of the management out without mentioning a word to the laborers. Spurred on by devotion to their craft, families and each other, the workers of Brukman decide to keep the factory running themselves. Soon the former owners and the government come knocking, leading the workers to stage a grueling peaceful protest for the simple right to earn a decent living. Director Issac Isitan takes us through all the stages of the workers' struggle, with footage right in the middle of the action. Inspiring and a must-see for a spoiled generation who feels the world owes them a living, as opposed to actually going out and making one.


Cinq questions... à Isaac Isitan, Anabelle Nicoud, La Presse, 26 janvier 2008

Réalisateur des Femmes de la Brukman, présenté à Sundance

C'est au grand raout du cinéma indépendant de Sundance que l'on joint le réalisateur montréalais Isaac Isitan. Après les Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), il y présente son documentaire Les femmes de la Brukman. Pour ce portrait humaniste du changement social en Argentine, Isaac Isitan a passé quatre ans là-bas, avec les ouvrières d'une usine reconvertie en coopérative de travail. Les femmes de la Brukman serait presque la suite de son documentaire L'argent, sorti en 2003, à ceci près: les héroïnes de son film sont des femmes, "nos mères et nos grands-mères". Des femmes à qui le réalisateur adresse une véritable déclaration d'amour. En entrevue, Isaac Isitan parle longuement d'elles, de leur combat pour la dignité, de leur victoire sur les patrons. Cinq questions et 45 minutes plus tard, Isaac Isitan conclut l'entrevue avec le même enthousiasme. "C'est une aventure extraordinaire qui m'est arrivée."

Q: Cest votre première fois à Sundance...

R: C'est la première fois, et en plus c'est l'un des cinq festivals les plus prestigieux au monde. On a une super bonne chance d'être vu aux États-Unis. On a fait la première mardi soir, on était fragile, parce que le film, en espagnol, est sous-titré en anglais. Et là, c'est la surprise: les gens ont beaucoup aimé le film, ils applaudissaient. Certains sont venus me dire merci à l'oreille...

Q: Comment se passe le festival?

R: C'est une rivière d'énergie! Il y a du documentaire, de la fiction, du court, de l'animation! Tous les films sont vendus d'avance, tellement le public vient de l'extérieur pour voir des films! On reçoit beaucoup d'offres de distributeurs, beaucoup demandent les droits du film. Nous, on accueille ça chaleureusement, mais c'est dense. Les directeurs du festival, nos anges gardiens, nous disent qu'on est très intéressants... Ni émotionnellement ni physiquement, on était prêts à faire face à cette énergie.

Q: Vous avez consacré un documentaire aux gangs de rue, au fonds de réajustement structurel du FMI. Les femmes de la Brukman s'inscrit-il dans une tradition sociopolitique?

R: Brukman a été la première usine occupée par des femmes! Imaginez, vous arrivez un jour (en 2001), les portes de l'entreprise sont ouvertes, les patrons ne sont plus là! Cette entreprise était endettée, comme toutes les entreprises en Argentine. Le patron vous doit jusqu'à deux ans de salaire... Les femmes sont restées, elles ont administrées les lieux avec l'assemblée de quartier, et ont travaillé avec les anciens clients. L'idée, c'était de faire pression sur les patrons, pour qu'ils s'acquittent de leur dette envers les employés. Mais quand le pesos a perdu 70% de sa valeur, la dette aussi a baissé de 70%! Les patrons étaient encouragés à revenir, et ils disaient que l'usine était occupée par des gauchistes! Les femmes ont été expulsées de l'usine, mais elles ont tenu bon! Et je regardais ces femmes lutter pour leur dignité, pour garder leur travail, pour nourrir leurs enfants... J'ai assisté, mais participé émotionnellement, à cette expérience, et j'ai vu que nos femmes et nos grands-mères savaient mieux où sont les besoins de l'usine que les patrons.

Q: Comment est né votre intérêt pour le combat des ouvrières de la Brukman?

R: Au départ, j'étais allé en Argentine pour mon film L'argent. Dans ce film, je regardais comment deux pays autosuffisants ont perdu leur richesse après avoir accepté les réajustements structurels du FMI. Quand je suis arrivé en Argentine, la révolution des casseroles avait déjà commencé. Mon coeur batait pour ces millions de gens... J'ai commencé à filmer les femmes pour L'argent, mais je me suis dit que c'était plus philosophique, et que ça méritait de faire un film.

Q: Les femmes ont-elles vu le documentaire?

R: Je leur avais promis dès le départ. Je leur ai dit: c'est votre histoire. C'était tellement émotionnel quand elles ont vu le film... Elles pleuraient. Moi, j'étais là, heureux. J'étais brûlé, et elles, elles ont dit: c'est notre histoire. C'est ma fierté.

Canadian talent dominates Sundance doc field, Katherine Monk, The Gazette, 12 janvier 2008

Even before Al Gore began a Nobel-bound journey from the humble floor of a makeshift theatre in the Wasatch mountains, the Sundance Film Festival was already recognized as an early barometer of pressing social issues where everything from the War in Iraq to morbid obesity from McDonald's food could be adressed in a small, safe pool of film festival liberalism.

This year is no different, with a full array of thoughtful, inspired and urgent films about everything from drinking water to government secrets filling out all facets of the program - and a full contingent of Canadian filmmakers looking to bring their message to the world stage.

Canadian documentaries are considered some of the best in the world, thanks in large part to the long-standing and still-sterling international reputation of the National Film Board, the organization that gave birth to modern documentary film via John Grierson's commitment to making "Canada come alive to Canadians" through the magic of celluloid.

Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze was one of three Canadian documentaries and one Canadian co-production selected from a field of hundreds for 16 slots in the Worls Cinema Documentary Competition.

Though this year marks the first time Canada had nothing selected for the World Dramatic compettion, the country's strong tradition of documentary filmmaking continues to attract attention - and highly coveted Sundance program slots.

This year, three Canadian documentaries and one Canadian co-production were selected from a field of hundreds for 16 slots in the World Cinema Documentary Competition: Patrick Reed's Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemna, Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze, Isaac Isitan's The Women of Brukman and Tanaz Eshaghian's U.K/U.S/Iran co-production, Be Like Others.

With four films in the running, Canada can claim a full quarter of the field - a significant chunk given the intense competition from around the world, and a great indication that when it comes to non-fiction, we're doing something right.

According to the filmmakers, that magic boost is the Canadian condition itself.

"I am a product of Canada," says Isitan, who just wrapped The Women of Brukman, his study of factory cooperatives in Turkey and Argentina. "And as a product of this country, I have a large open window on the world... I can see how things could be better, and I'm very committed to sharing these ideas. The world does not have to be as it is. We can change things if we learn from each other... and listen to each other, and this is why I make movies."

Isitan says he learned just how important community could be growing up in a small town in Turkey. "We didn't need anything from the outside world. Everything we needed we could trade amongst ourselves. I think this gave me a very different view of money and value."

Years later, when Isitan discovered how unemployed workers could organize and take over whole factories in order to save their jobs, and their towns, he saw it as an ideal film project. "We have these hot points all over the world, and in each one, people are learning different lessons from each other," he says from his office in Montreal.

"I think people can find great inspiration in the actions of others. And even when I was speaking to the senior programmer at Sundance, she said she wanted to program my movie because people needed to see it. She said no one in the United States would even think of taking over a factory and running it themselves. It wouldn't even occur to them," he says. So again, it's about showing people how the world could be different - how it could be better - if we come together and share ideas, share strategies and... redefine the way we value each other."

Les femmes de la Brukman, Robert Koehler, Variety, janvier 2008

A Les Productions ISCA presentation in association with Radio-Canada Television & RDI. Produced by Carole Poliquin, Isaac Isitan. Directed, written by Isaac Isitan.

With: Matilde, Liliana, Elisa, Juan Carlos, Nidia, Juan Caro.

Turkish Canadian docmaker Isaac Isitan's "The Women of Brukman," about the takeover of a Buenos Aires clothing factory by workers, stands as the most explicitly anticapitalist film at Sundance 2008. Pic, though, actually revisits the same issues and politics expressed in Naomi Klein's 2004 "The Take," which also celebrated the Argentine trend in self-organized collective workplaces when owners abandoned businesses in the wake of the country's 2001 economic meltdown. Decently made though unremarkable pic will create few ripples on the fest scene, and won't sell much beyond Canada and a few South American markets.

The shocking 2001 downturn is best pictured here in stark images of the suddenly empty exec offices of the Brukman clothing company, leaving factory staff with no word or guidance on the company's future. Isitan's active camera follows the Brukman workers (not all of them women) as they battle in the streets and courtroom to attain legal ownership of the factory shop. Some former housewives are seen turning into Marxist activists, while others are less rabid but no less committed. The invisible bad guys -- the bosses -- remain unseen and unheard.

Camera (Technicolor, HD video), Tolga Kutluay, Isitan; editors, Fernando Lopez-Escriva, Diego Briceno-Orduz; music, Roberto C. Lopez. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 24, 2008. Spanish dialogue. Running time: 88 MIN.