'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

Monday, April 25, 2005

These Preterite Shoes

The reference to the Lithuanian fish-packers in the link in the last-post-but-one made me think of Cumbria's long history of welcoming workers from Central Europe - back to the German engineers who came here to mine lead and copper in the 16th Century. Another chapter of that history is recorded in Bata-ville a film made by Cumbrian artists Kathryn Guthrie & Nina Pope, the local premiere of which took place the other day down in Siddick.
Some background: Thomas Bata was a visionary Czech industrialist who employed a mostly female workforce to make good, cheap shoes in well-designed factories, promoted the notion of the workplace as a surrogate family, and in the process created an early example of the transnational company, capital detached from location, profits mobile as lightning strikes. In my youth my hometown proudly sported a Bata factory - my aunt worked there for a while - which employed the wives and daughters of the local miners, steelmen and foundry workers. When I was a child I wore Bata shoes, bought from their shop at the bottom of Senhouse Street.
The film's an odd mixture of home-movie and social critique: the directors had the good idea of taking a coachload of former Bata employees from Maryport and East Tilbury on a kind of pilgrimage to Bata's original Czech factory in search of what happened to his ideals. Unfortunately the directors are neither social historians nor journalists, so we're left with the random mushiness of the road-movie - even the Maryport ex-employees seem baffled by what's going on. The directors also decided to cast themselves as coach-party hostesses and dress up in pastiche '60s airline-stewardess outfits, which was a mistake. When they finally get to meet the current head of the Bata empire, celebrating his 90th birthday, they ask him the softest of questions ('Maryport? I don't understand what happened there: it was a good factory') and later their journalistic senses desert them completely when they & their camera manage to be absent from the scene when, quite by chance, the workers bump into Young Mr Bata on the street. What happened? We're left to guess.
But there are some fine moments: one of the former employees awakes from a nightmare in her hotel, convinced that Bata managers are searching her room for a forbidden kettle (Bata's view of the workforce 'family' was highly authoritarian, a fact borne out by my aunt's memories). Our hostesses ask each of the workers they meet 'Are you wearing Bata shoes?'; Bata's head of European Production, a smarmy Belgian MBA, practically chokes - 'Of course not, these are executive shoes!' The Czech keeper of the Thomas Bata Museum, who could clearly go on as Vaclav Havel without rehearsal, bristles with pride, 'Of course!' he says and the camera zooms in to a pair of seriously distressed brogues. Welcome to the new European community.
There's a good film still waiting to be made about the lives of workers on the long journey from benign paternalism to rapacious globalisation. You could always start with the experience of Cumbria.


Blogger RenMan said...

I saw the Bata factory in Botswana in January go: http://www.batakenya.com/inside.php?articleid=28

26/4/05 10:53 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

I guess that nice Mr Bata decided to export the jobs, something that seems to have escaped the film-makers

1/5/05 10:00 am  
Blogger Karen G said...

I have enjoyed reading your thoughtful critique of my film - we didn't start out to make a journalistic doc about Bata and I think many of your points demonstrate the lack of an alternative model in the doc genre (or factual entertainment as they call it in TV). The meeting with Mr Bata deliberately shows us as star-struck - it works to create an ambivalence re. his distance as an almost God-like influence on the workers and showing him as a slightly confused old man - ''grounding' him, but also showing that we (like the workers) are too 'indoctrinated' to challenge him. You mght find the film website (www.bata-ville.com) interesting if you follow your way to the film outtakes / clips - there is an extensive section filmed at that meeting with other Batas discussing the demise of the factories.
A few factual corrections: It's Karen Guthrie not Kathryn! And Nina Pope lives in London.

28/9/05 10:08 am  
Blogger RenMan said...

Never believe what you read in the papers. I can see now (after explantion) what you set out to do. BUT isn't that the problem, as the originator of the idea, that the subtle delivery of the message can be lost. Whenever I read a critique of something I know a lot about - it is always ALWAYS incorrect.

29/9/05 12:31 am  
Blogger Nick said...

Karen - first off, apologies for the inaccuracies. I'll update the post idc. As Renman points out, it seems the blogosphere reproduces the same ills as conventional reviewing & journalism . .
Thanks for the explanation of the standpoint of the film - which makes a lot of things much clearer. I take your point about appropriate models of documentary not being available, and you're right that that is, effectively, my beef with the film. I feel that by declaring, as a director, that you're 'too indoctrinated' to challenge Bata you're saying you're not able to critique either globalisation or the psychopathology of everyday life in a company town . . . which is a shame because those are precisely the areas of critique the subject begs for. (Have you seen 'Tout Va Bien' at all? - not a documentary, but a very good exploration of how film-makers can grapple with just these issues).
BTW, how's the search for distributors going?

29/9/05 2:50 pm  
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9/2/10 11:00 pm  

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