“Offshore” might not be the first movie about Indian call center workers—“Slumdog Millionaire” has that distinction—but surely this dark comedy is the first produced by Indians that deals with the cultural and economic dislocations, not to speak of the outright racism, when they get these jobs as a result of outsourcing.
As a joint Indian-U.S. production, the movie tries to tell both sides of a story that is all the more topical given the current economic downturn. It begins with a visit of Voxx call center executive Ajay Tiwari (Sid Makkar) to the offices of Fairfax Furniture in Detroit in order to line up a deal to relocate their call center to Mumbai where it will be staffed by Indians.
But before the move can be consummated, it will be necessary for a cadre of Voxx workers to be trained at Fairfax headquarters where they will be on a forced march to learn the model line in two months. Voxx had proposed a nine month preparatory period but the Fairfax bosses were anxious to cut costs as soon as possible.
The three Indian workers are given the cold shoulder in the company cafeteria and are convenient scapegoats for the long-time employees who are on their way out. Even worse, the company trainer makes their daily sessions a hell on earth demanding instant answers to obscure questions about how to assemble a coffee table, etc. The Indians are models of perseverance and good will but come close to breaking on a daily basis.
Director/writer Diane Cheklich explained her motivation in making such a movie:
Almost everyone these days has been personally touched by outsourcing, whether as a customer calling into a call center for service or as a worker who has lost their job to an offshore company. The concept resonates with people on both sides of the ocean.
While I found the movie altogether compelling, it did leave me with a somewhat deflated feeling since the drama was posed in terms of “cowboys versus Indians” as the film-makers describe it. In an epoch of an almost Hobbesian struggle of workers of one ethnicity against another for the right to be exploited by a Fairfax or a General Motors for that matter, the audience, well at least this member of the audience, would hope for a resolution that favored all the workers against the bosses who set them against each other. “Offshore”, perhaps acknowledging current realities, does not offer such a pat resolution. “Offshore” opens tomorrow at the Imaginasian Theater in New York. A trailer can be seen at the official website: http://www.offshorethemovie.com/
“Food, Inc.” is a powerful indictment of corporate farming that opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 12th. Inspired by the writings of Eric Schosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), who provide a kind of tag-team running commentary throughout the documentary directed by Robert Kenner, it is the definitive statement on how America produces crappy food to the detriment of the people who eat it, the animals who are treated cruelly in farms and slaughterhouses, and the largely immigrant workforce that labors in unsafe and low wage conditions. The only benefactors it would appear are the men who run Monsanto, Purdue, Smithfield and a small group of other huge multinationals that only see food as the ultimate commodity. When they look at a tomato, they don’t see something to eat but something to turn into a dollar no matter the consequences to society.
While I have been paying close attention to these issues for well over a decade, I was surprised to learn that I only knew half the story. It is far worse than I imagined, especially when you are dealing with camera images rather than words on a page. I was shocked to see what chickens raised in factory conditions look like. The film’s producer went to dozens of large-scale chicken farmers who were under contract to Purdue or Tyson to get permission to film inside a chicken coop (a warehouse would describe it better) but were thwarted each time, only finally to get Carole Morison—a Purdue supplier—to allow them inside even if it meant the end of her business. She was disgusted by what was taking place and wanted to get it off of her chest.
She had already put up screened windows so her chickens could see daylight over the objections of Purdue, but had no control over how the animals were raised. The chickens had been bred to have larger breasts and mature twice as fast as normal with the intention of supplying the supermarkets with a more cost-effective product. What this does not take into account is the inability of a hen to walk properly with the extra weight on top placed on spindly underdeveloped legs. As a consequence, the sheds were filled with crippled hens crawling about the floor, often close to death or already dead. The floor of the warehouse was littered with these casualties to the profit nexus and their feces. No wonder Purdue and Tyson didn’t want you to see how your food looked before it came to the meat bins at your local supermarket.
Despite the grizzly aspect of factory farming that is depicted throughout the film in a kind of homage to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, the branding for these commodities tries to evoke a long-lost period when farming was a far more local and organic mode of production. The pictures on the labels for well-known food products make you think you have been transported to Dorothy’s farm in the Wizard of Oz when the reality behind the label is much more like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. In one particularly grotesque scene, we are in the control room of a mega-corporation where a bank of computers oversees the production of ground beef at various far-flung farms under its control. The key to success, the owners tell us, is that the beef is sterilized with chemicals in order to prevent e-coli disease. Apparently this is exactly what Burger King et al are looking for since they anticipate that more than 90 percent of all fast food burger patties will be produced this way in a few years.
Unfortunately, Barbara Kowalcyk, one of the interviewees, was not fortunate enough to have had one of these chemically treated hamburgers served to Kevin, her 2 ½ year old son, on a vacation some years ago. The meat carried e-coli bacteria that killed him after several days of agony in a hospital bed. Now she campaigns to see “Kevin’s Law” passed in order to close down any plants that have repeated violations of contaminated meat. Surprise, surprise. Washington has not seen fit to pass the bill.
Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.
The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:
“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”
– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.
In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.
If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.
When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:
Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.
He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:
Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.
I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)
This is what the Organic Consumers Association has to say about Tom Vilsack:
TAKE ACTION TO STOP VILSACK’S CONFIRMATION
* Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s support of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn:
* The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership.
* When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child of economic development potential was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.
* Vilsack was the origin of the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, which many people here in Iowa fought because it took away local government’s possibility of ever having a regulation on seeds- where GE would be grown, having GE-free buffers, banning pharma corn locally, etc. Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged on the House Floor that Vilsack put her up to it right after his state of the state address.
* Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a shill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto. Sustainable ag advocated across the country were spreading the word of Vilsack’s history as he was attempting to appeal to voters in his presidential bid. An activist from the west coast even made this youtube animation about Vilsack.
The airplane in this animation is a referral to the controversy that Vilsack often traveled in Monsanto’s jet.
Despite these criticisms, I strongly recommend “Food, Inc.” that opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 12th.
Official website: http://www.foodincmovie.com/