Opening to the lilting strains of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” is a loving and sobering look at the demise of New York’s garment industry, where the loss of manufacturing jobs to nations with cheaper labor represents “a microcosm of everything that’s going on in this country.” Filmmaker Marc Levin does a magnificent job of widening the documentary’s lens — providing a glimpse of a disappearing way of life that speaks to the larger issue of where an entire stratum of U.S. blue-collar jobs has gone.

The sons and daughters of those who made a living in the garment industry, it’s noted, went on to become doctors and Supreme Court justices. Yet the gains won by labor in the latter half of the 20th century were circumvented by businesses that uprooted their factories and took the work elsewhere, prompting one cutter to say flatly, “I’m a fossil.”

Levin neatly frames the story not just with the bustling streets of Manhattan but with the Triangle Factory fire of 1911, in which women working on the eighth through 10th floors — locked inside when the building erupted in flames — died horrifically, with some leaping to the street below. Coming full circle, the docu zeroes in on a similar tragedy that occurred decades later in Bangladesh, as well as the controversy over Kathie Lee Gifford allowing her clothing line to be produced in sweatshops overseas.

As perhaps only HBO can — given the fascination with the fashion industry and kowtowing to its big-name designers in cable’s many fashion-oriented programs — “Schmatta” also zeroes in on the role those labels have played in pursuing lower costs, and the toll that has exacted on those whose careers have died the death of a thousand cuts.

Premiering in Toronto, “Schmatta” will air Oct. 19 on HBO. As a footnote, the project has a personal connection for HBO documentary czar Sheila Nevins, whose great-aunt died in the Triangle fire.

Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags

  • Production: An HBO release of a Blowback production. Produced by Daphne Pinkerson, Marc Levin. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Co-producer, Richard Lowe. Directed by Marc Levin.
  • Crew: Camera, Daniel Levin; editor, Richard Lowe; music, John Zorn; music supervisor, Michael Halatyn; supervising producer, Nancy Abraham; line producer, Kara Rozansky. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Aug. 23, 2009. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Real to Reel.) Running time: 74 MIN.
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