Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Taste of Hope, Economies of Scale

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Next up in our essay series, Stephanie Lam on Laura Coppens’ Taste of Hope and the conditions of its production. 

Movies are commoditiesoften written by committee, industrially produced, heavily marketed, and distributed widely. A blockbuster can employ thousands of people, each specialized in their roles, hierarchically organized, and paid according to a fluctuating labour market. Films can also be made on a small scale. Taste of Hope is an example of what independent documentary filmmaking can accomplish through alternative means. The end result could be called visual anthropology, or film-as-ethnography, or just strong documentary filmmaking. 

Unobtrusive and humane, it is reminiscent of American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s studies of institutional cultures and workplaces. Proper to her training as a social anthropologist, director Laura Coppens is keenly sensitive to place and people. This skill for observation comes through in the film’s treatment of the factory as a unique environment, as well as its attention to daily rhythms and the interpersonal dynamics of people.  

In an unforgettable opening shot, we and the camera shuttle down the assembly line of the Fralib tea factory. Here, about 60 workers are producing something big. Tea is their product, but revolution is their goal. Co-operatively owned and managed, the factory is situated in the tiny town of Gémenos near Marseille in Southern France. Where it once produced Lipton tea, it now makes herbal teas flavored with locally grown linden flowers. Here, day to day decisions are made democratically, jobs rotate, and wages are distributed more or less equally. 

In both form and content, Taste of Hope is in some ways about scale: capitalist “economies of scale” and its requirements, but also literal, physical scale. The factory at times threatens to dwarf the individuals who keep it running. Creative camera movement and composition communicate the visual awesomeness of automated production, and meticulous sound design echoes its vastness. Humans are slow and irregular in their output, while machines glide along predicable paths quickly and without complaint. The human-environment interactions are mesmerising to watch. 

We also get to see the many small-scale, local, and ordinary actions required to bring a revolutionary ideal into reality. Fralib first made national headlines in 2010 after the multinational company Unilever, the owners of Lipton, decided to move its operations to Poland, a decision that would make all 182 local workers redundant. Rather than accept structural unemployment, workers occupied the factory for three and a half years—1336 days exactly (hence the name of their tea). After numerous legal battles, with the support of the Union CGT and a sympathetic public, the Scop Ti collective (as they were now known) successfully negotiated fair compensation and a transfer of ownership into their hands. The case became a rare local example of the “worker-recovered enterprise” or ERT movement that first gained traction in Argentina after the 2001 crisis, and which served as an inspiration for the collective. 

Coppens’ film is effectively a follow up to that headline-making event. It communicates the magnitude of the task at hand after the dust has settled. Revolution, it turns out, is not a single event but a process and a sometimes grinding one at that. Operating at an industrial scale with half the number of workers and a small fraction of the financial resources needed has not proved easy. Here is a unique glimpse at what an economic and political experiment in worker self-management looks like day to day. Along with cash flow problems, administrative bottlenecks, PR concerns, and a competitive market place, there is also grit, optimism, poetry, and sometimes a little dancing. 

Originally from Canada, Stephanie Lam lives and works in Boston. She is currently finishing her PhD in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University.

Laura Coppens’ Taste of Hope screens on Thursday 5th September at Bertha DocHouse