Film Reviews: At the Berlin International Film Festival – Two Films About Assaulted Workers
By David D’Arcy
Of them stylistically different films in which the workers are exploited and empowered.
The drama of Michael Borodin Grocery store, which premiered in Berlin without promotional fanfare, is a gripping story. (I watched this and other films at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival via links in New York.)
Borodin also wrote the script for his first feature film. This is the story of Mukhabbat, a young woman from the now independent former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. She left home to work with other Uzbek immigrants in a 24-hour store near Moscow, all drawn to the Russian capital with its promise of jobs, money and opportunity. She is abused by patrons, many of whom are drunks. She marries her husband on the premises, a few steps from the liquor shelves; the newlyweds sleep on the floor with all the other employees in a room behind the store. Aloof, calm, largely unfazed, she works all the time, with no free time.
Here, as in other modern cities, immigrants keep a business running and the solvency of its owner. The police come to take their share of the goods, seizing what they want. They are a cost of doing business – and of staying employed.
Then things get worse – an Uzbek girl is raped, then tortured after she runs away. The workers are not paid. Mukhabbat has a baby, which is taken away from her. Even by the standards of immigrant exploitation, it’s hellish.
Grocery store contains scenes you might expect from shocking investigations, exposes of immigrant abuse, if Russian media dared to report on such abuse. The abuse – slavery in most cases – is an open secret in Moscow and St Petersburg, where immigrants from Central Asia and elsewhere stock shelves and wash dishes.
The story of exploited immigrants in the great city of Borodin, of Uzbek origin, places its characters in confined spaces. The lighting is cold, typical of refrigerators and narrow service corridors. Vodka, corruption and violence make these claustrophobic conditions worse. In this narrow setting, the physical constriction creates tension, offset when the camera cuts to see the glittering kitsch spread across the shelves. You can almost smell the place – unappetizing meat that employees hand-pack, cheap booze sold by the glass, and too many bodies around. The violence – as tactile as the cramped environment – can be insurmountable. Yet everything and everyone is monitored, on security cameras that operate, like the store, around the clock.
Borodin also charms viewers with unexpected dream sequences, alluring visions that seem too soothing to find in store.
Confinement is one of the difficulties that Borodin’s film explores; the secular peonage is another. Mukhabbat’s escape from Moscow and his return to his native Uzbekistan change the palette of Grocery store. In the vast cotton fields under an immense sky where the women do the hard work, the light barely penetrates the dust. The women who work here are eager to believe anything about Moscow, especially the promise of higher salaries in the capital. Mukhabbat knows best, but when her sick mother suddenly has to have her leg amputated – for a huge price, which she cannot afford – the young woman borrows money for a job that will take her back to Moscow, an immigrant to new.
Zukhara Sanzysbay, as Mukhabbat, has a stoic elegance that resists the grim fatalism of the film. Lyudmila Vasilyeva plays middle-aged store manager Zhanna with the cruelty of a brothel madam who knows life better than her young proteges.
Yet the talent that stands out most clearly in Grocery store is Borodin, whose eye for improbable detail animates what could have been a dark and stiff moral tale. Imagine a scene where gravediggers bury Mukhabbat’s mother’s amputated leg next to her husband – a down payment? If the cotton field and the cemetery look alike, it is no coincidence.
Borodin originally planned to make a documentary on cotton in Uzbekistan – a film that I and a dozen others would have liked to see. In an interview, the director said he and his team had found so many shocking cases of immigrant enslavement that they had enough material for a five-year series. They found that some “employees” are detained longer than that.
Grocery store is sure to travel to other festivals, perhaps even to the United States. Keep an eye out for its bland generic title. Its story (or stories) has enough striking parallels to the exploitation of immigrants in America that the idea of an American remake came to me. Mukhabbat, or a character like her, could be a top role for an actress looking for a challenge.
At the other end of the Berlin International Film Festival spectrum was the Austrian doc For the greatest number, a look at an agency in Austria that protects workers’ rights. (Protection despised by the Moscow police in Grocery store) AK, as it is called, is the Arbeiterkammer Wien (Labour Office), which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year adapting to the COVID crisis. The doc compresses AK interviews, complaints, meetings and day-to-day operations, including the COVID challenge, into less than two hours — a haiku by Fredric Wiseman standards.
Director Constantin Wulf says its roots are in direct cinema, the wary auteur observation approach pioneered by Canadians in the middle of the last century, a school of cinema broad enough to have included, among many others , Richard Leacock, DA Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles and – you guessed it – Frederic Wiseman.
Never pass up a chance to see a European working in what is essentially a North American style, at least for a look.
And it turns out that this document deserves more than a look. Like Wiseman, Wulf films people who agree to be filmed. Although this is not an official corporate portrait, there are no stealth or undercover footage here. For non-Austrians, the agency’s humane treatment of workers will be a revelation. We see an organization made up of dedicated employees who have been given the resources to serve those in need. Tell that to your local bureaucrats. It’s a world away from Wiseman’s well-being from 1975. And the AK building is spotlessly clean.
At Wulf’s For the greatest number has some elements in common with that of Wiseman Town hall, a 2020 documentary about a city and a mayor trying to do better than Boston’s reputation suggests. Yet arranging a conference with successful socialist economist Thomas Piketty (who chats with AK staff at a public program) is a service that even former mayor Marty Walsh has not provided, to my awareness.
Citizens (customers or clients) in For the greatest number are treated with respect and don’t wait all day to be seen. The building is new and welcoming. Employees speak German, Serbian, Hungarian and other languages to people who desperately need help. Why so desperate? Meeting after meeting, we hear workers complaining that clerks are being fired, underpaid or not paid at all, or treated abusively. Their faces, pained and exhausted, convey the news with sobering credibility. At least in Vienna there is a place to deal with unfair treatment.
Unfortunately, the title of the film, For the greatest number, overestimates the potential audience of this film in the United States. Still, it will show up at documentary festivals, and fans of direct cinema and its legacy should seek it out.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.