Almudena Carracedo’s debut docu relates a rousing true story of solidarity, perseverance and triumph, following garment workers over a four-year period as they unite to demand minimum wage and decent working conditions in L.A. sweatshops. Deftly interweaving legal battles, national boycotts, group dynamics and individual empowerment, pic offers a personalized history lesson in class struggle. More simplistically heroic than, say, “Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Made in L.A.” could still serve as a populist rallying cry within the movement it chronicles. Docu airs Sept. 4 on PBS’ POV.
Carracedo and producer Robert Bahar wrap their film around three women, tracing their impact on the collective action and, perhaps more dramatically, the radical changes triggered in them by political engagement.
Lupe, thirtysomething, 5-foot-nothing, compensates for her lack of stature in energy and drive, commanding the camera’s focus as she carefully applies makeup to minimize her “ugliness,” or strides about explaining her past. Maura, on the other hand, radiates a certain stillness, never completely in the moment, part of her always thinking about her three children in El Salvador, whom she hasn’t seen in 18 years. Soft-spoken Maria paints a vivid picture of poor working conditions in a shop that locks the doors and allows no bathroom or lunch breaks.
The women gather at L.A.’s Garment Worker Center, where they air their grievances and receive a rundown of their rights, supplied in Spanish by the largely Asian-American staff. This pooling of experience also leads to the discovery that the worst sweatshops mass-produce clothing for nationwide retailer Forever 21.
While lawyers pursue a precedent-setting suit that would hold retailers responsible for the conditions under which their product was manufactured, the GWC’s organizers help the garment workers mount a boycott against Forever 21, picketing and chanting slogans outside stores while store managers openly photograph the protestors.
As the boycott and the legal case drag on for three long years, the filmmakers chart the ways the larger struggle complements the shifting fortunes of the pic’s chosen heroines.
Combating constant stage fright, Maura speaks at colleges, her involvement sustaining her when her children disappear en route (illegally) to the U.S. Maria, on the orders of her alcoholic husband, temporarily stops coming to the GWC, only to discover that her commitment to the cause outweighs any lingering spousal allegiance. Lupe, meanwhile, gets increasingly fascinated by the larger picture, eventually becoming an organizer at the GWC.
Soon after the workers force management to grant them legal wages, the garment industry hightails it out of L.A. to the Third World. Yet for those who established a legal precedent and transformed themselves from passive victims to proactive fighters, this seemingly Pyrrhic victory is very real indeed.