Posted: 12/04/2009


Made in LA


by Martyn Conterio

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Made in LA is an award-winning documentary focusing on a three year legal battle with clothing manufacturer Forever 21 spearheaded by a collective of Latin American immigrants in Los Angeles. Directed in an unfussy vérité-style by Almudena Carracedo, this inspiring piece of cinema is more than a polemic against economic injustice - it also follows the lives and struggles of three particular women: Maura, Lupe and María.

The film wisely avoids an overtly political slant which could have easily dismissed the documentary as a socialist rant. Instead, its focus is on a strong sense of moral justice. All they want is basic employment rights. Following the highs and lows of the legal process offers a glimpse of how uncaring businesses can be. Forever 21 initially deny any responsibility and bizarrely counter-sue the workers.

As stated in the film, the garment industry is the first port of call for immigrants fresh over the border. There is a policy between sweat shop owners and the worker that amounts to: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is a mantra that superficially protects both.

A manual worker has only their honest toil and labour to sell. When companies exploit their desperation and fragile social and political status for vast profit, the sense of injustice is apparent. In Made in LA, the workers have had enough. As Maura explains, sobbing, “They throw your dignity on the floor.”

Charting the movement from the very beginning, the migrant workers are finally galvanized into action by their exploiters (a shady pyramid of contractors and subcontractors). Forced to work 12 hour shifts for a pittance with no rights contravenes California state legislation protecting workers rights. Armed with this knowledge, a legal battle is mounted. The quagmire and implications of employment rights for illegal immigrants is too dry for cinema, so instead Carrecedo tells the other side: the human side. The sense of frustration at the bureaucratic and legal minefield they enter is felt throughout. At one point, the organization threatens to fragment all together.

The three women chosen by Carrecedo to represent the collective issues and themes forces the audience to recognize, and hopefully, applaud their determination. As well as working all hours, they have children and duties as mothers and wives. Indeed, the tyrannies of capitalism are not the only obstacles some of the women face.

María leaves the group at one stage as her focus wavers due to concerns for her children and marriage. By the end, she has left her husband and devotes so much time and effort to the cause, her transformation is remarkable. So, too, Lupe, who finds employment at the immigrant centre educating fellow workers on their rights. That these brilliant women begin so unsure of themselves and end up travelling the US to lecture at universities and discuss their experiences, shows the indomitable spirit of people who believe in fighting a cause. It is utimately a film about positive transformation.

They may be the ghosts of our towns and cities, but it is easy to forget these people are human beings with aspirations, dreams and hopes for their own futures and those of their children. Made in LA is a stark reminder of people power without the typical political associations.

Martyn Conterio lives in London, England. After leaving Manchester Metropolitan University, where he studied film, he worked as a script and continuity supervisor for a community arts project ReelMcr. He has written for several major online film magazines including the award-winning Scene 360. He also contributes to Flux magazine. In-between all of this, he publishes poetry and short fiction.

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