We the Workers provides an intimate look at the life and work of a labor organizer in time of crisis. At the center of the film are the staff members of the Haige Labour Center in south China who handle labour cases and assist workers in organizing and bargaining with their employers. Wen Hai’s documentary, which was filmed between 2009 and 2015, follows the activities of the Haige Labour Center and other organizations, and notes the impact that the members’ involvement in the movement has on their personal lives.
The documentary opens with a portrait of southern China as an area of continuous development. Skeletons of metal bars promising huge infrastructures are being built with a uniform look and distance. Beside these huge steel foundations we see workers on top, beside or below the frames while constructing it. The texture of the area affords a poetic landscape of the workers’ environment. Shots taken by a drone camera show images of buildings of full development against the smoggy sky. This shot could be taken as a suitably ironic metaphor for how workers are represented in news about how China survived the financial crisis of the late-2000s: these well-planned business districts and beautifully designed architecture would seem empty without the workers were not being placed within them. China’s “economic miracle” was never without human cost as its economy survived through the intensification of labour abuses. The conditions presented by the opening scenes establish the situation that surrounds the film. Workplace hazards and worker neglect through unpaid wages are just a few of the many issues that the labour organizers try to address.
Unlike other documentaries on the worker’s movement, the film never really features the worker’s protests, which as mentioned in a prologue, took place throughout the period covered. Rather, what we are provided with is a closer look at the life of the labour activist beyond the streets, where the bigger struggles happen. We see various activities in the film, which may seem idle at first look, but are vital parts in the work of a labor organizer. From consultation with workers about related issues, to activity planning, formulating statements, meetings and even sharing thoughts on organizing over drinks. These interactions are presented with a clear objective in mind – to show the organizers as they are. And with the movement members themselves being clear articulators, it is not hard to understand where their ideas come from or how they are trying to put them into practice.
One of the most memorable scenes is when Haige Labour Center director Huihai Chen participates in an online video chat with other labour organizers, a meeting which, in-turn, become a discourse. New avenues of communication are not just used as an extension of their activities, but have become a channel for their dialogue, a way for them to receive, give out, and develop their ideas. Scenes like this provide a new way of reading the labour movement as not just means to provide workers what they are owed according to the law, but also as a venue to exchange ideas about life and its struggles. The film’s finest achievement is how it captures the vital elements of labour organizing and lives of these activists without becoming repetitive.
We the Workers delivers a new form of partisan filmmaking along the lines of Latin America’s Third Cinema in that it is conscious of its position without ever feeling unbalanced, and clearly articulates how a film can participate in labour struggles.
We the Workers is showing on May 4 at the Chinese Visual Festival.