More an advocacy piece than an expose, and less a portrait than a snapshot, the anti-child-labor docu “The Harvest/La Cosecha” nonetheless makes its own up-close case on behalf of young migrant workers, decrying a system that promotes not only the exploitation of individuals, but also pan-generational economic stasis among a considerable segment of the population. Limited theatrical play should be followed by exposure on Current or another progressive TV outlet, where the film’s social-action campaign will get the best publicity bump.
The film’s hard point is that no one benefits from the current migrant-worker system, except for the agro-businesses that feed on cheap labor and desperation. Focusing on three very young workers — Zulema Lopez, 12, Victor Huapilla, 16, and Perla Sanchez, 14 — helmer U. Roberto Romano takes a very observational approach to what might have been an easily sentimentalized subject. Lopez, for instance, admits she really has no dreams; Huapilla just wants to grow up to have a steady job; Sanchez, perhaps the most articulate of the three, wants to be a lawyer, for what seems like obvious reasons.
Rather than chronicle outrageous abuses (although a stolen childhood seems abusive enough), Romano is intent on portraying the grind that life has become for families that must travel cross-country for uncertain work. Lopez has attended eight schools in eight years; Huapilla has to care for his sisters and make sure they get to school, but is too preoccupied to attend himself. As all three kids show, exhaustion becomes a way of life, exacerbated by malnourishment and despair. Life in the fields doesn’t seem so bad, the viewer might think, but having no way out of them seems pretty close to horrible.
“The Harvest/La Cosecha,” whose exec producers include actress Eva Longoria, has few artistic pretensions, but its observations are potent. No one really comments on the fact that about six members of Lopez’s family have to travel from Texas to Michigan under the cap of a pickup truck, or that Huapilla washes his hands and arms in straight chlorine bleach to dissolve the corrosive mix of juice and dirt that comes from tomato picking. Despite the wearisome routine of harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, cotton or whatever they can get hired to pick, the families remain solidly supportive of each other, which we see in any number of ways.
The visuals are occasionally interrupted by onscreen text revealing unadorned facts — that the school dropout rate among migrant-worker kids, for instance, is four times the national average, or that 400,000 children are working the fields of America each year, perpetuating a system that keeps labor cheap and life short. Lopez’s parents, in their early 40s, look 60, and their bodies are falling apart. Part of the wear, as this ironically titled film implies, comes from a lack of hope — for themselves, and more importantly, their descendants.
Production values are adequate, with Romano’s shooting on-the-fly but ably verite.