31 October 2009

Crimes of The Corporatocracy:

Maybe it all started back in 1772, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first began to work on the tragedy of Faust, the supposedly brilliant scholar who sold his soul to the devil for a chance to relive his youth. Even if one considers the modern equivalent -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- there is little doubt that, in games of power, one party plans to dominate another by hook or by crook.

In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore doesn't hesitate to describe capitalism as inherently evil. As he interviews Americans whose lives have been ruined by predatory lending, foreclosures, or simply being powerless pawns in the banking industry's multinational gambling schemes, audiences see human faces put on the victims of globalization.

While microcredit programs like Kiva have helped many to break out of poverty and become successful entrepreneurs, appealing to people's baser instincts by tempting them with mortgages they can't afford, credit default swaps, or "irrationally exuberant" lines of credit, is an easy way to trap consumers in a spiral of debt. Watch carefully as John Hodgeman schools Jon Stewart in the ways of Wall Street.

Whether one chooses to think in terms of macroeconomics or microeconomics, the use of debt as a financial weapon is becoming clearer in terms of how we perceive the global economy. Whereas 2003's The Corporation did a superb job of showing the ruthlessness with which corporate interests are willing to destroy lives in their pursuit of profits, two new documentaries do a superb job of showing how financial power is used to put the squeeze on impoverished workers as well as political leaders.

Soon to be screened at the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is a documentary of deceptive visual beauty. I was particularly interested in seeing Iron Eaters because India and Bangladesh have become the final destinations for so many ocean liners and old ships whose final voyages deliver them into the hands of the ship breakers who sell their steel for scrap.

Shaheen Dill-Riaz
It is to writer/director Shaheen Rill-Diaz's great credit that his film not only exposes the brutal effects of capitalism on some of Bangladesh's poorest workers but that, despite exposing such financial exploitation, so much of his footage is a gorgeous visual treat.

The beaches of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal are where many container ships and oil tankers are broken down by Bangladeshi iron workers who have been forced from their homelands in the north during seasonal floods. Their work requires them to wade through mud that reaches as high as their calves as they pull the heavy cables that will drag the ships closer to the beach. 

Often working under conditions that would make an OSHA inspector vomit with disgust, they are sometimes required to carry iron plate on their shoulders when it is still hot from the application of blow torches. Known as the Lohakhor (iron eaters), the men work long, unforgiving hours from which some never recover.

Kholil and Gadu are two peasants from northern Bangladesh who recruit many of their relatives to work for Chittagong's PHP (Peace, Happiness, and Prosperity) Group when the flooding from the rainy season causes famine in the north. Although they are lured to Chittagong with advance payments and promises of easy loans, by the time they leave, they may not even have enough money for the trip home. Shaheen Dill-Riaz lived with the workers for  5 months in 2005 while filming them at work.

As he explains:

"I've known the place where the ships are dismantled since I was a child. It's not far from my home village. We had heard lots of stories about the huge ships and the serious industrial accidents, but those of us on the outside knew next to nothing about the real working conditions in the yards because the workers themselves never talked about what they experienced there. I wanted to know who these people are, who come to us in the south and work for months on starvation wages.

Getting shooting permission was hard enough. The most important point I had to get across to those in charge was that I was not making a film about environmental pollution (that was their biggest worry). While we were filming, we were faced with the same problems the workers themselves had. At the end of the day, we were observing extremely difficult, and even life-threatening working conditions. We stood barefoot with the workers in the mud, balanced on rotting beams, and went down into the extremely dangerous innards of the ships. I still can't understand to this day why nothing happened to us. Were we really so careful? Or were we just simply lucky."

Instead of forcing workers into debt, those responsible should admit that there is something essentially wrong here. Anyone who has seen these people at work knows that they are paid far too little and that the dangers they face every day could easily be avoided. There are technical solutions that could reduce the life-threatening risks the workers are exposed to -- and there are enough experts who have already approached the yard owners with suggestions for improvement, but these are continually ignored.

We have all obviously resigned ourselves to the fact that our lives are determined by the stock exchanges. So we shouldn't be surprised by the results. For me, Ironeaters shows the consequences of this global attitude.

With this film I wanted to immerse myself in a world which had been closed to me for a very long time. I was curious and I had expected to discover something new. The unbelievable working conditions that the film shows were not the greatest surprise for me but rather the administrative structure, which drives the people into a deadly debt trap. Even more appalling for me was the realization that the attitude of the exploitative system is founded on the basic elements of the economic system in which we all live. Ironeaters shows just how far this can go."

Desperate to earn money with which to support their families between rice harvests, these men work for a pittance. Because they are forced to purchase their food from grocery stores that cooperating with the shipyard owners (who happily extend their workers' credit to a point where the laborers are performing backbreaking work for almost no income), these men become trapped in a stifling debt spiral.

Don't be fooled by some of the arresting images or moments of exquisite cinematography. Despite the protests of the shipbreaker's management (who are noticeably well fed and are never seen doing any physical labor), this depiction of capitalism at work is not the slightest bit pretty.

Source: My Cultural Landscape. By George Heymont. 31 October 2009

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