From Reel to Real: Using Film to teach Labour History

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John-Henry Harter

society-of-the-spectacleDuring my undergraduate degree I had an epiphany in the only labour history class offered at my university. Here being taught in this class was my history, my own lived experience. More broadly, it was an acknowledgement and validation that the working class mattered. As a mature student, I had worked for years before entering post-secondary and had not really found a foothold. Labour history helped establish that foothold. It started to put words to experiences I had not been able to articulate: words like solidarity, alienation, class, and stratification.

Oddly enough film studies was another discipline that discussed ideas and issues that seemed more real and relevant to my life. Reification, commodification, and hegemony were all concepts that helped me understand the world around me.

It wasn’t until I started teaching at Simon Fraser University as a sessional instructor and later as a lecturer that I had the opportunity to bring labour history and film together. I was not the first to do this, but never-the-less it was exciting and held the promise of connecting with students like I had been so much earlier. This paper reflects on these experiences to explore the process of using film to approach and teach labour history.[1]

Initially, in the course’s first iteration, I encouraged students to think about labour history and labour issues as they were framed and constructed through film. The curriculum was, and is, intended to be counter-hegemonic. Although it has become cliché, history is most often written by the winners or at least by those who hope to gain and hold power. History teaching can easily fall into reiterating the stories that perpetuate this power. As educational theorists have pointed out, both the Official Curriculum and the Hidden Curriculum can be used as a hegemonic device.[2] Part of my goal was to make plain how much history explicitly, and most often implicitly, serves the interests of the dominant group and that films ostensibly about the working class can function the same way. On the Waterfront, which I will discuss later, is an excellent example.

What I hoped to accomplish through this course was a teaching practice that functions counter to this tendency by challenging both the hegemony of the traditional “great man” theory of history and the notion that work and workers are unimportant. By legitimizing the culture of working class students, this curriculum brings to light the importance of working class people who have been marginalized and exploited by the dominant capitalist class in our society. Combining labour history with film can allow for discussions of labour in new ways and most importantly engage students with the past in ways that can inform the present.

One of the key themes running through my teaching is the idea of historical agency. In a world where it seems everything has been done before and that one cannot influence their world in any meaningful way, I would like to inject in my students the idea of hope and of agency. In many ways, this is an example of Natasha Levinson’s concept of “belatedness.” She describes the problem as, “students feel so weighted down by their social positioning that they see no point in attempting to transform the meanings and implications that attach to their positioning.”[3] Levinson discusses how the idea that we can create something new in the world is contradicted by the fact that the world is not new. Of course history is not new, but the way we interact with history and with film can be new. Film is a dynamic medium and students can see how even an old topic, such as the International Workers of the World (IWW), can be made new again.

Add Film and Stir

In designing the syllabus for the first iteration of my course I initially wanted to provide a survey of North American labour history using a textbook and simply pick films that complimented this chronology.[4] I quickly discarded this idea as it struck me as an “add film and stir” type of pedagogy. It seemed as if I was constricting myself within my own conceptions of the discipline. It became clear that the films needed to be more than just props that add to the content delivery. I became far more interested in using the films as a way to define the class and draw on them as the primary “texts” of the course. The challenge then was to teach my history students not only how to read the films but also to respect them as being as important as the actual physical texts.

The first hurdle was the reluctance of students to take film seriously.

Film as Ideology

The idea that all films are ideological is the one idea that students find the most difficult to incorporate into their understanding of film. Not surprisingly, they do not need to be convinced that the latest Michael Moore film contains ideology; it is the Hollywood blockbuster that they hold up as non-ideological. Greg M. Smith’s article, “It’s Just a Movie: A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes” is the perfect introductory article as he tackles the “it’s just a movie why take it seriously” position that many students bring with them into any introductory film class.[5] The idea that “it’s just a movie” and thus somehow beyond ideology or politics is hard to combat and generates much discussion throughout the early stages of the class. During these discussions I find it useful to introduce the idea that it is not only film that makes choices of story, editing, direction, subject matter, but also history. This allows us to examine how both history and film are constructed narratives and what the ramifications of this are.

Practical Matters

Like any instructor designing a course, I confronted the practical matters of curriculum design such as what texts to use, what films, what format, essentially how to organize the course. The first decision is usually what texts to use (though often this can be impacted by what films you want to use so you may start there).

Textbooks
An important component of the course is examining how the working class is portrayed. William J. Puette’s Through a Jaundiced Eye: How The Media View Organized Labor is an essential tool for looking at this subject.[6] Puette surveys how labour has been misrepresented in film. And – to be fair – once in a while, also properly represented. I do not have my students buy this text but rather post a section online that relates to this topic specifically. To compliment the reading, I show Manufacturing Consent as the first film in each class. I give the introductory lecture and go over the course and then we watch part one of the film. This film along with the reading for the week, Puette’s “Labour Framed” lead us into a discussion of the propaganda model and how it operates in regards to labour.

For many students in my classes, this is the first film class they have ever taken. With that in mind I put, Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film as an optional text. [7] Textbooks are expensive and having too many is unfair to students, particularly if I am concerned about issues of class. This text is optional and put on reserve in the library. It is perfect for students who have some trepidation around writing about film.

The other key text is John Storey’s Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction.[8] Each chapter traces the history of the theory and practice of studying popular culture. I integrate a chapter or two each week with some of the chapters logically complementing the theme of that class; for example, Chapter 6 on Feminism compliments the two weeks we examine the intersection of gender and class.[9] The framework of Storey’s text is an overview of the theories used in cultural studies initially going from the beginnings of cultural studies with Matthew Arnold onto the ideas of culturalism with Hogarth through Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall. He finally looks at schools of thought from Marxism to Feminism; Post Structuralist and Post Modern through to Queer Studies. What I particularly like about this text is that he clearly articulates a post Gramscian analysis and frames the study of popular culture as a site of struggle. This compliments my pedagogical framework that hegemony of the ruling class alliance is partially secured through its cultural articulation and this is visible in many of the films we watch.

I have also used Mark Leier’s, Rebel Life not so much for the narrative of the labour spy Robert Gosden, but for the book’s sidebars that carry the history of labour throughout the early 20th century.[10] It is Canadian in context but applicable to the larger historiography of labour history as it goes through the roots of the IWW and the socialist party through to World War II. This text compliments the early part of my class which covers the early 20th century and the history of the IWW.

The documentary An Injury to One about the murder of Frank Little and the history of the IWW compliments this text well. This can lead us into a discussion of film as an historical document. While I don’t use his whole text, Robert Rosentsone’s Visions of the past: the challenge of film to our idea of history is invaluable in examining how history is portrayed on film.[11]

Of course choosing the films can be an overwhelming task but thankfully there is an excellent book to help with this. Tom Zaniello’s book, Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riff Raff: An Expanded Guide to Films About Labour, makes film selection easy. As an instructor, you can fit the course to meet the themes you want to cover.[12] While I cannot possibly cover all the different iterations that a film and labour course could be designed around, Zaniello’s book does offer a great resource if you want to focus on women and labour, immigrant labour, itinerant labour, a history of African American labour. The thematic index included in the book works well for many topics.

Films
salt_of_the_earth_posterI organize the courses with a loose chronology as it simply makes sense to me rather then jumping from back and forth temporally. However, the chronology is complemented by thematic organization as well. I try to use two films for each theme, often one documentary and one fictional film which allows for discussions of how historical narratives are constructed in both types of film. I find students respond well to exploring the role of the documentary versus the role of the mainstream fictional film, so I often contrast a documentary with a fictional film to cover a theme.

Early on in the course I give a lecture on genre, conventions, and use the Storey book as a way to examine issues of authenticity in film. I contrast the IWW documentary, An Injury to One, to Matewan, which, while a fictionalized story of an IWW organizer, has a unique approach that tries to adhere to the historic reality of the subject matter, while framing it within the conventions of a western. This allows for a discussion on how genre operates and also the responsibility of documentaries compared to fictional films dealing with history.[13]

In the Canadian focused iteration of my class I show the film Prairie Fire which created a debate among Canadian labour historians on how well, or how poorly, it portrayed the Winnipeg General Strike.[14]

Below are two possible organizational frames for organizing this course through film; one for a North American focus and one more specifically Canadian.

Theme Film Significance of the film
All films are ideological Manufacturing Consent Compliments readings and lecture on the position that all films are ideological. Propaganda model is introduced. We examine how it could operate within film. Examination of impact of film on contemporary labour issues.
History as document An Injury to One Provides excellent history of the IWW through the lens of the murder of Frank Little. It also introduces more experimental film techniques. We investigate film as a work of art and as an historical document.
Use of genre and convention to construct meaning Matewan Complimenting a lecture on the use of genre and convention Matewan allows us to move forward in the labour history chronology but also to look at how convention can be used to create meaning.
Cold War ideologies On the Waterfront Discussion alongside Salt of the Earth provides context of the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Particularly as the director and producer of On The Waterfront “named names” and Salt of the Earth was made by blacklisted actors. This introduces ideas on how to read films.
Salt of the Earth Introduces alternative ideas of film making and also quite progressive ideas far ahead of what students expect from the 1950s.
Feminism, Class, and Film Theory Working Girl An excellent film for reading the Hollywood blockbuster and looking at how the classic realistic text can be applied to more than just action films.
Norma Rae A good film to debate the merits of history as drama and the responsibility of the filmmaker to historical authenticity. The content allows for discussion of the history of the union movement in the South. (could be contrasted with Barbara Kopple’s American Dream). Both films allow for discussions of the intersection of gender and class in film and society.
Contemporary Images of Labour on Film Roger and Me Explores the historical effects of Reaganomics and the era of corporate “downsizing.” Also, this is an example of a new kind of documentary where the film maker is also the subject.
American Dream A good contrast to Michael Moore’s style of documentary. In addition, it allows us to examine inter union struggles and the idea of democratic unionism and what that looks like. Both Roger and Me and American Dream open up discussion of the role of unions in contemporary society, the idea of class as category of analysis and site of struggle.
Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Prices The movie brings the labour history into the present and works as a way to review all the themes of film and labour history while opening up the discussion to the relevance of our class to the present.

 

Making it Canadian

Theme Film Significance of the film
All films are ideological Manufacturing Consent Compliments readings and lecture on the position that all films are ideological. Propaganda model is introduced. We examine how it could operate within film. Examination of impact film is on contemporary labour issues. This is a Canadian made film with Canadian directors so it fits well for making it Canadian too.
History as document Prairie Fire A documentary about the Winnipeg General Strike. Chosen not because it is an excellent example of a documentary but because of the debate among historians about the problems with the film. The debate is covered in Labour/Le Travail Critique “History Television and the General Strike.” The film allows for a discussion of the role of film and history and how film constructs history.
Use of genre and convention to construct meaning Goin’ Down the Road A classic of Canadian cinema. This drama about Maritimers leaving home to make it in Toronto elegantly  captures the themes of alienation. An older film that my students found fascinating. Allows for discussion of questions such as; Is there a unique Canadian voice in film? Is the representation of class different in Canadian film?
Cold War ideologies On the Waterfront With Salt of the Earth, both films contextualize the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Particularly as the director and producer of On The Waterfront “named names” and Salt of the Earth was made by blacklisted actors. This film introduces ideas on how to read films.
Salt of the Earth A classic and introduces alternative ideas of film making and also quite progressive ideas far ahead of what students expect from the 1950s.
The Man Who Might Have Been: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Herbert Norman

 

I keep the Cold war section the same with this one addition. Herbert Norman is not well known now but was one of the most famous Canadian victims of McCarthyism at the time. The RCMP cleared him of being a communist spy but the FBI refused to accept this and their harassment is seen as the cause of his suicide.
First Nations and Film Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man A film by Alanis Obomsawin about the little know history of Mohawk construction workers interwoven with the story of Randy Horne, a high steel worker who was known as Spudwrench when he helped defend his land during the Oka crisis. An important film in almost any Canadian history course but particularly pertinent to an inclusive labour history.
Norma Rae  A good film to debate the merits of history as drama and the responsibility of the filmmaker to historical authenticity. The content allows for discussion of the history of the union movement in the South. (could be contrasted with Barbara Kopple’s American Dream). Both films allow for discussions of the intersection of gender and class in film and society.
Contemporary Images of Labour on Film Roger and Me Explores the history of the effects of Reaganomics and the era of corporate “downsizing.” Also, this is an example of a new kind of documentary where the film maker is also the subject.
American Dream A good contrast to Moore’s style of documentary. In addition, it allows us to examine inter union struggles and the idea of democratic unionism and what that looks like. Both Roger and Me and American Dream open up discussion of the role of unions in contemporary society, the idea of class as category of analysis and site of struggle.
Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Prices The movie brings the labour history into the present and works as a way to review all the themes of film and labour history while opening up the discussion to the relevance of our class to the present. I use this Canadian or North American. Great film to bring in a guest speaker from UFCW who have been trying to organize Wal-marts across North America for over a decade.

It would be easy to show only Hollywood films that portrayed workers in a negative light and some students have done excellent projects in that vein, but it would not be empowering nor would it show the rich cultural traditions within the history of film. Keeping in mind that my goal with these classes is to both provide students with the basic vocabulary for understanding concepts in the field of film study (questions of narration, realism, and spectatorship) as well as examine specific themes in labour studies, through the movies themselves and through the issues, incidents, and events they portray.

Some instructors may wish to use only contemporary films. This would definitely work. I have found that having students watch some of the classic films is a great way to illustrate how class has been framed through the 20th century. Regardless of the films chosen, the study of film and labour history becomes a way to examine the theory of how capitalist exploitation is reproduced through cultural articulation but also to provide the means with which to contest it.

Where do we go from here?
Both courses are organized as thematic explorations of labour and class through film rather than simply survey courses of labour history using film. I designed the courses to focus on film practices and some of the theoretical perspectives that have emerged to account for them, with particular emphasis on class and the depiction of the working class. The underlying idea of both courses is to examine how our ideas about labour, trade unions, and employment, have been informed and misinformed through film and film practices, through the movies themselves and through the issues, incidents, and events they portray.

Implicit in this endeavour in my desire to encourage students to watch films actively; by searching for the possible meanings of individual shots, sequences, and narrative structures, as well as the relationships among films. I find the seminar is an excellent way for students to engage with the film. It is natural for any filmgoer to discuss a film afterwards with friends; the seminar class is a natural extension of this behaviour. It allows the students to make links between the films, the readings, and their own lived experience and experience as spectators. In coming to understand how film operates to construct meaning, I hope my students leave the class not only with an understanding of film and issues of class, but also with the tools to interpret how film informs ideology. Not just as an intellectual exercise but as a way to legitimize the culture and lived experience of working class students.

John-Henry Harter is a lecturer in History and Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of New Social Movements, Class, and the Environment: A Case Study of Greenpeace Canada (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011). His research focus is on Working Class history, Environmental History, and Popular Culture.


Notes

[1] I combine my process of designing what would become Labour Studies 389 (LBST 389) at Simon Fraser University and Labour History Through Film (HIST 396) at the University College of the Fraser Valley and in a bit of a different iteration simply Studying Labour Through Film (LBST 330) also at SFU.

[2] For an excellent overview of the history of the idea of a hidden curriculum and essays on how hidden curriculum operates at the university level see Eric Margolis, The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education. (Routledge,2001) Retrieved 12 September 2016, from <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=31682>

[3] Natasha Levinson, “The Paradox of Natality: Teaching in the Midst of Belatedness.” in Gordon, M., ed. Hannah Arendt and Education: Renewing our Common World. (Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 2001). 15

[4] Because I am old, the text at the time would have been Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience, 2 ed. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992). More recently I have used Craig Heron’s Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History, 3rd edition (Lorimer Publishing, 2012). This may not be the place but I would like to note a protest that Palmer’s book has never had a third edition. I consider this an academic crime of some sort. When I figure out of what sort I will press charges.

[5] Greg M. Smith, “It’s Just a Movie: A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes” Cinema Journal Vol.41 No.1 (Autumn, 2001)

[6] William J. Puette, “Chapter 1: The Movies:Labor Framed” in Through a Jaundiced Eye: How The Media View Organized Labor (Ithaca, N.Y. : ILR Press, 1992).

[7] Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing About Film 9th edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2015)

[8] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction 7th edition (Routledge,2015)

[9] With new films coming out many of my students who look at gender and class in their research projects choose North Country which would easily fit into this course.

[10] Mark Leier, Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy 2nd edition (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013)

[11] Robert Rosenstone, Visions of the past : the challenge of film to our idea of history (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995)

[12] Tom Zaniello,, Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riff Raff: An Expanded Guide to Films About Labour (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2003).

[13] For debates on Matewan see Melvyn Dubofsky, “Matewan Film Review” in Labor History Vol.31 (1990) and Robert E. Weir, “Communications” Labor History Vol.32 (1990)

[14] History Television and the General Strike: Three Views. David J. Bercuson , “Prairie Fire: A Personal View” Labour/Le Travail, 45 (Spring, 2000); Kurt Korneski , “Prairie Fire: The Winnipeg General Strike” Labour/Le Travail, 45 (Spring, 2000); Tom Mitchell & James Naylor, “Prairie Fire Fizzles,” Labour/Le Travail, 45 (Spring, 2000)

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