Issue 3/2006 - Working Poor

Happy Workers

Dario Azzellini’s and Oliver Ressler’s film »Five Factories« documents worker-controlled firms in Venezuela

Jens Kastner

Contented workers standing in front of their machines, talking about the benefits of Socialism for the 21st century: this scene, which would be inconceivable for factories in Central Europe nowadays, has now been captured on celluloid. And it’s not in a science fiction film, but in a documentary. Dario Azzellini und Oliver Ressler visited five factories in their second film about the political and social changes unfolding in Venezuela since President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999 in Venezuela. Whilst »Venezuela Von Unten« (»Venezuela From Below«) (2004) looked at various grassroots movements that constituted the »Bolivarian process« – named after the anti-colonial »liberator« Simón Bolívar (1783-–1830), the focus this time is exclusively on the industrial sector.
Interspersed between motifs fit for a postcard with cocoa beans speeding through processing plants, or cords endlessly spooled onto reels by rotating equipment, the filmmakers have positioned protagonists who offer insights into the cooperative mode of organisation. This time around they also remain true to their method, dispensing with didactic narrators speaking from off screen or explanatory texts, and just simply letting the people directly involved speak to the camera. The settings are an aluminium plant, a textile mill, tomato and cocoa processing plants, plus a paper mill. »The worker’s assembly«, says Rigoberto López from the textile mill in San Cristóbal, »is more or less the company boss«. The inherent attraction of the narratives lies in that the mechanisms and difficulties of worker-run firms are described just as matter-of-factly as run-of-the-mill production processes – with the latter being somewhat reminiscent of educational TV programmes in the »Sesame Street« mould.
Various forms of worker participation and even worker-run firms are spreading in Venezuela, born out of employee struggles and generally endowed with government loans. One of the factors that made this possible was the constitution adopted in 1999, which enshrines the principle of »participative democracy« and a role for the people of the country as active players. According to data from the Venezuelan Labour Ministry, over 150 factories are now run by workers’ cooperatives. These do not simply aim to make tangible improvements for themselves. Aury Arocha, a laboratory analyst in the »Tomates Guárico« ketchup factory emphasises that what makes the cooperatives different from capitalist companies7 is that the cooperatives »work for the community, understood in the sense of society. « And Carlos Lanz from the Alcasa aluminium plant formulated the key question: »How can a company bring pressure to bear to move towards socialism in a capitalist context? «
Alongside trained managers, utterly normal workers talk about a project concerning the whole of society, which should certainly not be seen as a throw-back to the days of the cult of the proletariat. However, the question does arise of how representative these workers are. Precisely because the individuals are so exposed in the images, the question arises of who they stand for, or rather who is actually behind them. And who is not. That is not to say that there would have been any need to allow the right-wing opposition an opportunity to have their say here. They certainly have enough channels open to them, in the true sense of the term, given that they own the major private television broadcasters. However, the »Bolivarian Revolution« is not a homogenous matter either, but is instead riddled with the struggles of the various factions involved. This kind of social conflict is indeed reflected in various individual statements from the interviewees, but is not the film’s main focus.
However, in concentrating on the successes that the current restructuring process has enjoyed so far, the film makes a refreshing change from the bulk of Western reporting about Venezuela. This is often obsessed with the president and his »populism«. Taking a fresh look at the »Bolivarian process« therefore also shows how stupid many attempted comparisons about Chávez really are, even those that appear in leftist-liberal newspapers, such as the Austrian daily »Der Standard«. In such articles Chávez has been equated – in the context of the constitution, of all things – with rightwing hardliner Alvaro Uribe from Columbia (Alexandra Föderl-Schmid) and with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad (Hans Rauscher), due to his anti-Americanism. The film impressively demonstrates that these polemics completely miss the point of the hard facts on the spot. In contrast with tiny Communist parties in the German-speaking world, the filmmakers, if they can be said to celebrate anything at all, focus not on the president but on the social transformations he has made possible.
And on the subject of reporting: more than other documentaries that have caused a stir in Austria recently, such as »Darwin’s Nightmare« by Hubert Sauper or »Unser täglich Brot« (»Our Daily Bread«) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Azzellini and Ressler are counting on efforts to raise awareness. »5 Factories« attempts to produce an understanding of how things hang together, not to generate moral sympathy. That a film of this type functions just as well in the Berkeley Art Museum as it would in a General Studies class is definitely a plus point for it.
The film »5 Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela«is on display in California as the first part of the exhibition series »Now-Time Venezuela«, screening in an installation version on six large screens dotted about the room. The exhibition’s title refers to Walter Benjamin; he indicated in »On the Concept of History« (1939) that history should be considered as the object of a construction that is fulfilled by now-time. This exhibition thus also participates in this type of construction, with the curator, Chris Gilbert, emphasising unusually explicitly that it is not simply about representation or reflexion, but about solidarity with the »Bolivarian Revolution«.1
The methodological stringency and the clear graphic language of the work can certainly serve this purpose without that meaning that art is transmogrified into propaganda. For what is disturbing about Azzellini and Ressler’s film is not the indisputably one-sided and unambiguous way they take sides, but instead the depiction of a possibility. This form of worker control of firms has constituted a realisable prospect for reshaping society ever since the period during the Spanish Revolution (1936) in when, for the first time in a modern mass society, factories were taken over on a large-scale by the workers without a political party directing events. Who would ever have thought that anti-capitalist organisation in and of factories would work in the post-industrial age? This film affords outsiders a too an opportunity to gaze in amazement at the happy workers.

»5 Fabriken – Arbeiterkontrolle in Venezuela«. (Five Factories – Worker Control in Venezuela) A film by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler, 81 min., 2006.
»Now-Time Venezuela. Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process. Part 1: Worker-Controlled Factories«, Berkeley Art Museum, 26th March to 28th May 2006.


Translated by Helen Ferguson


1 Gilbert announced on 21st May 2006 that he was resigning from his post as curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, as he found his work there had increasingly begun to run up against obstacles.