Eduardo Coutinho’s “Peoes” (“Metal Workers”), may not be the most profound or provocative documentary on the subject of the eternal class struggle, but this 2004 movie is well-worth one’s time as a tribute to the lives of working men and women in a poor country. It also provides an insightful perspective as to why a man such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, often known simply as “Lula”, born into poverty so extreme his mother would leave him alone in a dirt pit while she went to her job, rose to become the most popular president in Brazil’s history in over a century.
It helps as well that this was made by a 71 year-old veteran of Brazilian cinema — that is, somebody who himself was a witness to the the historical upheaval that serves is this film’s core theme. And what upheaval was that? The first major worker’s uprising in nearly two decades after a military dictatorship that came into power during the 1960s virtually abolished labor unions and violently suppressed any attempts by the legions of underpaid, overworked Brazilians — often for foreign corporations — to demand more just wages and better working conditions.
In 1980, Lula spearheaded a new movement to organize metal workers, largely employed in the automotive sector run by the likes of Ford and Volkswagen. This was a bracing challenge, in the face of loss of work and wages, not to mention arrests and government-sanction abuse by company goons.
Interestingly, the making of the film becomes part of the story of the film as Coutinho gathers as many participants (on the union side) of this major moment in Brazil’s evolution, explains what the film is about, and asks them to assist in finding as many other survivors of that era as possible. Yet the effect of this expository device does not come off as self-conscious or pretentious.
If anything, it enhances the secondary theme in the film of the contemplation of momentous life decisions seen in retrospect. A quarter of a century later, the workers, many from rural areas, talk about the hard choices they made in leaving their families in the country for lives of grinding and sometimes dangerous labor in the city, at automotive plants, for wages that promised a slightly greater opportunity for upward mobility than what they earned as farm workers.
What is both surprising and refreshing in “Peoes” are the number of women in the film who were as eager as the men to work in the plants and sweat along with them. One woman talks about her job involving arm movements so repetitive, and for so many hours in a day, that she repeated the movements in her sleep. Less funny is a woman’s wistful regret over how she had to sacrifice time rising her own children in order to earn enough at the plant to provide for them and, she hoped, free them from the cycle of poverty into which her family lived for generations.
Lula’s Worker’s Party and the strike which followed posed a threat not just to multinational corporations that were earning lucrative profits off the cheap sweat of Brazilian laborers, and to Brazil’s military regime, but to the very tenuous lives of urban stability that these same laborers had sacrificed for. They suffered beatings and betrayals, as well as unemployment, but none of the veteran and retired workers in the film regrets their actions, even though the concessions they ultimately won were meager. The greater victory is that they laid the foundation for a greater self-confidence for the generations of Brazilian laborers that followed in asserting their right for a decent life.
Lula himself is presented, mostly in old film and video footage, and his charisma, standing before a mike, cigarette in his hand, denouncing exploitative labor policies, is evident throughout the film.
Coutinho’s subjects freely acknowledge that as of 2004, when “Peoes” was shot, that Brazil’s economy, with its high unemployment, left a lot to be desired. Perhaps Coutinho might have interviewed veteran corporate and company management representatives to see if they still justified their own policies a quarter of a century after the fact. But “Peoes” ultimately, is not quite a sociological thesis, but rather an honoring of the lives of the marginalized men and women whose sacrifices in the service of a “free market” are often taken for granted. “Peoes” is currently playing that Plaza Cultural La Moneda as part of its tribute to Brazilian cinema.
The entire movie is on-line here.