22 June 2012

Indonesian Workers Expose Globalization

The 2002 documentary video 'The Globalization Tapes' originated as an unusual collaboration of the Indonesian Independent Workers' Union of Sumatra Plantation Workers (Perbbuni); the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers' Association (IUF); and the London-based Vision Machine Film Project. For the most part, the professionals turned the filmmaking over to the plantation workers themselves. They traveled to various work sites and villages to listen to their fellow workers detail harsh working conditions and also to offer their analysis of the principal causes for much of this distress.


The thesis of the film is simple enough but devastating in its implications through waves of repressive colonization (Dutch empire), neo-colonization (the American-led overthrow of the nationalist leader Sukarno by Suharto, memorialized in the feature film, The Year of Living Dangerously, 1982), and globalization (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [IMF]), workers on the ground and their leadership have been brutalized and impoverished.

What makes this a successful film, however, is that local filmmakers and workers remain, for the most part, front and center. Their efforts are supported with some hip postmodern editing of captions, montages, and provocations, such as this rhetorical exchange: 'Why is "globalization" an English word? Because the Javanese didn't colonize the whole world.' The interview with the worker who gathers the fruit pods for palm oil details his daily wages (1.14USD per day). But to earn even that, he has to have his son work, without pay of course: 'I can't make my quota if I work alone.' He cuts and pulls down from the trees giant pods weighing about eight pounds each, and he must gather seventy of them each day. Another extended interview features the women who spray Gramoxone (which consists of paraquat, an ingredient in the chemical weapon Agent Orange) in a circle around each tree. The women wear no goggles or masks and suffer the obvious consequences of dealing with poison.


The film also provides a capsule history of Indonesia and how it has come to be essentially a vassal of the World Bank and the IMF. The trade unionists hope to organize not only Indonesian workers but also their counterparts in other developing nations. Otherwise, one of them says, the companies will just relocate to another former colony in the Third World.

A number of unusual and compelling sequences punctuate this ideal companion to John Pilger's The New Rulers of the World (2002), another documentary analysis of the World Bank and the IMF in Indonesia. A soccer match played by elephants and an interview with a leader of one of Suharto's death squads reminds viewers of the strange old days, while the soundtrack at the end includes the songs 'We Shall Overcome' and 'Solidarity Forever,' suggesting some 'new' old ways.


For background reading, Made in Indonesia by Dan La Botz (2001) provides an essential study of the role that Indonesian workers played in the 1998 overthrow of President Suharto and their ongoing struggle with globalization and issues of human rights, and John Pilger's companion to the film noted above, The New Rulers of the World (2002), features essays on Indonesia and other countries victimized by transnational organizations.

[This is a slightly edited version of a review by Tom Zaniello that was originally published in The Cinema of Globalization: A Guide to Films about the New Economic Order (ILR Press, 2007, pp. 85-86). Five remaining parts of The Globalization Tapes and The New Rulers of the World are available on YouTube.]

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