Filmmaker Q&A with Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick of THE HAND THAT FEEDS
In times of economic uncertainty, it is increasingly difficult for front-line workers to earn a living wage. This inspiring film focuses on a group of employees at a popular New York City eatery, many of whom are undocumented and vulnerable to being exploited. When they stand up to management to fight for better wages and working conditions, they gradually learn how to empower themselves and emerge as leaders, taking action for what is right.
(click HERE to view the trailer)
1. Introduce yourself.
Rachel Lear’s award-winning first feature doc BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2010) was supported by Fulbright and the National Film Institute of Uruguay, had two community screening tours of Uruguay sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Culture and was broadcast nationally throughout Latin America. Her ongoing video art collaborations with artist Saya Woolfalk have screened at numerous galleries and museums worldwide since 2008. Rachel was a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow for her new film THE HAND THAT FEEDS. She holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from NYU.
A product of backwoods Maine, Robin Blotnick has worked as a freelance editor of everything from cage-fighting matches to celebrity home movies. His first documentary, CHOCOLATE COUNTRY, received a Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, was a winner in LinkTV’s ViewChange Competition, and is used as a teaching tool by educators and Fair Trade advocates around the world. His feature documentary debut, GODS AND KINGS, tells a strange story of masks, magic and mass media in the highlands of Guatemala. It premiered at Mexico’s Morelia International Film Festival and won the Intangible Culture Prize at the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Films (Scotland, 2013). Robin is a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow for his new film THE HAND THAT FEEDS.
2. What inspired this film? How did you find your subjects?
In 2011, we got caught up in the fever of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and ended up spending that fall documenting it. It was an exciting time, and we learned a lot, but we didn’t find a film there. We were looking for a more dramatic character-driven story. After Zuccotti park had been evicted and the movement was dying down in early 2012, we heard about a group of undocumented immigrant restaurant workers who had reached out to Occupy activists for help fighting unfair treatment by their bosses. Not only were we intrigued, we were really inspired by the courage of the workers. It was a classic American underdog story, and it spoke to the gripping issues of our time, economic inequality, immigration reform, the crisis of the labor movement and the rise of a low-wage service sector economy.
3. What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?
The biggest challenge was working without funding at first and never knowing when we would need to go shoot. We were doing freelance jobs on the side, but we had to be on call to grab the camera and microphone and rush up from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side whenever there was a new crisis brewing. And there were a lot of crises! People in the labor movement told us this type of campaign could take three or more years to resolve itself, so we were prepared for a relatively slow-moving story. Instead it reached an epic conclusion in less than 8 months. This was of course a good thing, but it felt like we lived through 3 years of drama in those 8 months!
4. What is your proudest professional moment?
For this film, it was our premiere at Full Frame in April. To be able to stand up there with our star Mahoma and receive 3 standing ovations from a packed house was a nice recompense for all the recent madness the three of us had been through together. It was especially rewarding to hear from local workers in the fast food industry that the film inspired them and felt true to their experience.
5. Why did you become a filmmaker?
Robin: I’ve wanted to make films since I was a young child—though at the time I wanted to be a Disney animator. I got my hands on a camcorder around 11, and used it to make spectacles of claymation, horror and adventure in the woods near my home. The initial appeal was to be able to control everything, to create fully controlled, artificial worlds. Over time I moved toward non-fiction, maybe because I sensed it was better to give up some control. It’s more rewarding for me now to engage with the messiness of reality.
Rachel: I fell in love with documentary filmmaking during my first years of graduate school in anthropology, when I had the opportunity to take film classes at NYU. I suddenly realized that this art form allowed me to do everything I enjoyed and valued at once— to tap into my background in photography and music and my childhood penchant for collage to construct the audiovisual fabric, to engage with the social world in meaningful ways, and to make arguments by telling stories.
6. What was the first film you saw in a movie theater?
Robin: I think it was ET. I was too young for it, and though I remember laughing at the scene where ET drinks a beer, the image of federal agents in white hazmat suits taking over the house gave me nightmares.
7. Who is the most memorable documentary character you’ve ever seen?
Robin: Timothy Treadwell in GRIZZLY MAN. There is nothing like someone’s own home movies to give you a special glimpse into their private nature.
Rachel: I think I’d have to say Mark Borchard, the filmmaker in AMERICAN MOVIE. His singular devotion to his craft generates a range of emotional responses from bemused fascination to uncomfortable pathos to genuine admiration.
8. Which documentary do you consider the most cinematic?
Robin: I might have to go with PARADISE LOST, which is ironic because it was made for TV. But it’s a more riveting courtroom drama than anything Hollywood could come up with.
Rachel: I think TO BE AND TO HAVE is an incredibly cinematic documentary. I love that it starts with a very slow sequence of turtles walking around the classroom where most of the rest of the movie will take place. This prepares you for slowing down to a pace at which it is possible to appreciate subtle drama in everyday life.
9. What documentary do you find the most original and imaginative in its construction?
Robin: I’m a huge fan of the films Adam Curtis makes for the BBC, like THE CENTURY OF THE SELF and THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES. I’ve never seen anyone use historical archival footage as artfully and playfully as he does. He’ll be talking about Game Theory, or some arcane school of psychology, and you can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Rachel: I am really interested in Jean Rouch’s “ethnofiction” because it broke new ground in blending documentary and fiction as well as collaboration between filmmakers and subjects. In JAGUAR (1955), the first of these experiments, a group of three young African men travel down the Gold Coast seeking work and have many interesting encounters along the way. The subjects become actors, and all dialogue and actions are improvised, though some are more realistic than others. This collaborative representation of everyday life through fantasy gives access to truths that a traditional documentary might obscure.
10. Which documentary would you say has had the most profound impact on society?
Robin: Kind of an unanswerable question, but in my lifetime, in my country, Michael Moore’s films definitely have an effect. A lot of people have problems with him, but I think he’s brilliant.
11. If there were one documentary moment in history that you could place yourself behind the camera, which one would it be?
Robin: I would want to be back there with Thomas Edison or the Lumiere brothers, shooting the first films ever.
Rachel: I wish I had shot DON’T LOOK BACK.
12. What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?
Having the hotel manager where we were staying in North Carolina start talking to us about his own complex relationship with the undocumented immigrant workforce he manages. People of all political stripes, all around the country want to talk about the issues raised by our films, and that’s exciting.
13. What song has you pumped this summer?
“Double bubble trouble” by M.I.A.
Friday, June 20, 4:45 p.m.
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Saturday, June 21, 3:45 p.m.
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