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May 21, 2009

Motive and Chicken

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Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind
John Gianvito - 2007

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Mississippi Chicken
John Fiege - 2007
both Watchmaker Films All Region DVD

I was not expecting to receive new DVDs from Watchmaker Films and was in no way prepared to write about them. Nonetheless, my feeling is that if someone is going to send me DVDs, the least I can do is watch them, and hopefully write something thoughtful.

What these two documentaries have in common is that they are about the pursuit of the American Dream. Mississippi Chicken is the more traditional film, about immigrant workers from Mexico who have come to work in a Mississippi poultry processing plant. Profit Motive is a more abstract film of shots of the gravestone and historical markers of the famous, and the almost anonymous, who in fought on behalf of the oppressed or marginalized from the days of Colonial America to more contemporary times.

The combination of the two films made me think back to the Fall of 1973 when I was taking a course on documentary films from George Stoney. While I don't remember the title of one of the films we saw in class, what I do remember is that it was about migrant workers, black workers from "the South" who came to do seasonal work in Long Island, the supposedly more liberal, enlightened "North". Whatever they thought they would earn got eaten up from the costs of their contracted housing and the company store that was the only one allowed as their source for buying food and other needs. Between that documentary made about forty years ago, the general overview of those who were killed campaigning for workers' rights in Profit Motive, and the more specific portrait of a community in Mississippi Chicken, there is the impression that nothing has changed all too much, that there are the exploited and those who will abuse their power.

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What both films share is they can be called documentaries, but that description is only a starting point. Mississippi Chicken started off as being about workers in a chicken processing plant but evolved into a story primarily about Mexican workers in Canton, Mississippi, and primarily about one extended family. The first person narration by workers' rights Anita Grabowski is at times self-reflective, discussing what her role should be in regards to the lives of the people she's encountered, as well as discussing whether the film as veered from its intended mission. Profit Motive is an extended montage of shots, with the narrative coming out of the historical chronology of the various gravestones, markers and monuments.

What aesthetic or political value these films might have might be nullified by the audience most likely seeing these films, preaching to the choir as it were. If Mississippi Chicken has any effect, it is most likely to convince a few more people to not buy Tyson's chicken. As for Profit Motive, it is a visual compliment to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. What value these films have has less to do with filmmaking, that as acts of reminders that the more shameful aspects to American life are not not closed chapters of the past, but remain stubbornly part of our present.

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Posted by peter at May 21, 2009 12:17 AM