Argentina: Turning Around is an exciting film which captures the spirit of Argentina’s grassroots response to economic meltdown. Drawing from diverse interviews and incredible footage, the film offers an inside look at the victories and challenges of Argentina’s neighborhood assemblies, protest movements and worker-run factories. Argentina: Turning Around skillfully transmits the country’s courageous examples of social change.
In this interview, the film directors Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young talk about what led them to make the film, how the social and political environment in Argentina has changed since the 2001 economic crash, and how Argentina’s methods of combating economic crisis on a grassroots level might offer lessons to activists in the US facing economic trouble.
Argentina: Turning Around is a documentary available from Bullfrog Films
Benjamin Dangl: What led you to make this film, and how is it connected to the story of your previous film on Argentina, Hope in Hard Times?
Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young: Just as we prepared to leave for the World Social Forum in southern Brazil, and then to visit Argentina, the dominant U.S. media reported Argentina’s economic and political collapse of late 2001 with pictures of people pounding on the shuttered banks and the news that 30 people had been shot and killed by the police in just one day. We almost cancelled our plans to visit Argentina for fear that it might be too dangerous or depressing. But friends in Buenos Aires encouraged us to come anyway.
And when we got there we saw what was not reported in the dominant media – a remarkable resurgence of grassroots democracy, mutual aid, and cooperation, with street corner assemblies that sometimes led to takeovers of unused banks to form neighborhood centers, factories that had been shut down and were re-opened by their workers in defiance of the law, large scale community gardens, and daily mass blockades of streets and highways to demand government action to help those most hurt by the economic crisis. We pulled out our travelling camera and began to film. Although we were only able to stay for a couple of weeks, we continued to follow events in Argentina and returned 6 months later for more filming. The result was Argentina-Hope in Hard Times (2004) which has screened all over the world in its English and Spanish versions and has even been translated into Chinese for a screening in Hong Kong.
We were invited to screen Hope in Hard Times at the 2005 Festival de los Documentalistas in Buenos Aires. While in Argentina again, we tried to assess if things were back to business as usual, or if there were some fundamental changes from when we were last there. We revisited the grassroots projects in our film with camera in hand, and we even screened Hope in Hard Times in a couple of the worker run factories. Many neighborhood assemblies were no longer active, but the factories that had been taken over by worker cooperatives were surviving and thriving, and we filmed at a few more.
We also visited a new community cooperative run by unemployed workers in the poor suburb of La Matanza, and a villa de miseria (slum) on the outskirts of Buenos Aires founded by cartoneros (recyclers). We met with economists, journalists and activists, including Esteban Magnani, author of The Silent Change, who helped us to appreciate that the long term significance of the events of 2001-2002 goes well beyond the accomplishment of a given factory or neighborhood. As Magnani puts it in Argentina-Turning Around, "It was a miracle! People took over the scene again. We said that we are the protagonists of our own history, and we want to be the protagonists."
BD: Could you describe some of the main ways that Argentina’s social and political environment has changed since the 2001-2002 economic crash and subsequent popular activism and organizing?
MD and MY: This is what Argentina-Turning Around addresses. For most people life has become more normal again. Once the emergency passed, the intense grassroots activity subsided, but many efforts in communities and workplaces continue. In 2003, Nestor Kirchner was elected President, and he was succeeded by his wife Cristina Fernández in 2007. They both talked a more populist line, and persuaded the courts and government agencies to give worker run factories a chance to prove themselves [even as former owners tried to get them back]. Argentina paid off its entire debt to the IMF with help from Venezuela. They began to prosecute human rights offenders from the military dictatorship of 1976-83 (also touched on in Turning Around). As the economy recovered substantially in 2004-2007, official unemployment rates dropped from over 20% to 8%. We were told that people would never again let the Argentine government favor the demands of global corporations and institutions at the expense of regular people such as what happened in the 1990s.
Of course, now Argentina is feeling the effects of the global financial crisis, and right now too, the swine flu. The economy is down and unemployment is up. The expansion of lands planted with transgenic soy has raised food prices and contributed to inflation. And President Cristina Fernandez’s party lost seats in the June mid-term elections, with criticism from both right and left. (For more information, see Argentine journalist Marie Trigona’s writings about swine flu and recent elections in Argentina.)
On a return visit earlier this year we found that the 200 or so worker run factories continue to "occupy, resist, and produce." A few have failed but others have started up. When eviction has been threatened by former owners, often the public has shown up to demonstrate their support for the worker run enterprises. For the history of the Zanon ceramics plant, one of the first to be seized by its workers, see this article. Similar worker run enterprises have taken root in Brazil, Venezuela and most recently, Uruguay.
BD: Could Argentina’s experience with economic crisis and methods of combating that crisis on a grassroots level offer any lessons to activists in the US facing economic trouble?
MD and MY: Although there is seldom inspiring news from Latin America in the U.S. press, we believe we can learn a lot from Argentina’s activism, especially from the can do spirit of horizontalidad (non-hierarchical organizations). As Esteban Magnani puts it in Turning Around, "There is a vibe in the air that the important thing is to do it, to find your own way to do it, and to help other people find their own way!"
When Hope in Hard Times came out over 4 years ago, people at screenings in the U.S. would say, "We have seen similar policies, such as off-shoring of jobs and privatization of public services here in the U.S. Will we have an economic collapse of our own? And if we do, would we pull together as people did in Argentina?" Fast forward a few years and we are in the worst economic crisis since the great depression. The corporate agenda of globalization and privatization has been discredited.
Many in the U.S. have quit expecting solutions from the top and are becoming active with others in their local communities, with a particular emphasis on local food and alternative energy. Workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their Chicago factory late last year, to demand severance pay and benefits after the factory closed, and they won. That factory is scheduled to re-open under new management to produce energy conserving windows. Their example was followed by workers at Hartmarx clothing, who voted in May to sit-in at their plants to protect their jobs.
But so far, we haven’t seen workers begin to run these plants themselves. Even in Argentina, self-management didn’t happen right away. At the beginning of Argentina-Turning Around, Soledad Bordegaray of the Union of Unemployed Workers says, "It’s not like people began with the idea of running things ourselves, we weren’t taught to think that way. But no existing institutions were responding to our needs for jobs, education, and health care. People got together and said, why wait for someone else? Let’s see what WE can do!"
We produced these films to encourage our own resurgence of grassroots democracy here in the U.S. It is hard to imagine resolving the current economic situation and the challenges of energy and climate change by relying on the same top down, profit maximizing institutions that got us into this mess in the first place.
BD: What are you working on now?
MD and MY: Earlier this year we visited Argentina again and personally delivered copies of Argentina-Turning Around to all who appear in the film. Our travels led us to film some of the current struggles of indigenous peoples in northwest Argentina. The expansion of mining contracts, burgeoning grape production for wines, and the lucrative soy plantations that produce animal feed for export are exerting pressure on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples. We also witnessed the successful vote in Bolivia for the new constitution that provides more rights for indigenous peoples. Some short pieces about these struggles will appear soon on You Tube. At the moment we are preparing our most recent documentary for public TV broadcast in English and Spanish, Good Food. Recently we signed a license with public TV in Argentina to broadcast Buena Comida. Our website is http://www.movingimages.org, and you can contact us through email@example.com
Argentina: Turning Around is from Bullfrog Films
Additional Resources on Social Movements in Argentina:
Upside Down World is an excellent source of contemporary articles about Argentina.
Esteban Magnani, El Cambio Silencioso, a book in Spanish with substantial information about the worker run businesses in Argentina, recently published in English, The Silent Change, and available from Amazon. Magnani hosts a website that follows the recovered factories: www.elcambiosilencioso.com.ar The site has recent articles in English and Spanish, some video clips. Magnani appears in Argentina-Turning Around.
Sin Patron: Appearing for the first time in English [Spanish edition published in Argentina in 2004], this book explores ten case studies of recovered companies, featuring interviews with movement leaders that provide a history from the shop floor-history that is still being made today.
The innovative organization, The Working World, is offering a totally transparent revolving loan fund to worker run enterprises, and also markets their products.
Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina is a book by Marina A Sitrin including first hand perspectives of several activists involved in grassroots movements in Argentina. This is also available as a book in Spanish.
Lavaca.org is a website written by a group of Argentine journalists [in Spanish]. It contains thoughtful articles on recuperated factories and other current events in Argentina.
Recouperating Dignity: Argentina’s Worker-Owned Enterprises is a radio broadast by Marie Trigona a correspondent for Free Speech Radio news based in Buenos Aires.