CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 37. . . .May 25, 2012
Work for All: Films Against Racism in the Workplace. = La tête de l'emploi: Des films contre le racism au travail.
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2010.
120 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9910 328.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
The off-camera voice you will hear in this film represents the voice of all the foreign doctors who wish to remain anonymous. (From Doctors Without Residency.)
In Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, once a human being has satisfied his or her basic physiological needs (food, water, sleep, etc.), they next focus on needs those involving some level of security, amongst which "work" is important. When an individual cannot find work, many social and psychological needs cannot be satisfied, and, if that person has a family, providing for the family's needs becomes a real source of concern. Work for All gives voice, not only to foreign-trained physicians who cannot establish themselves in Canada but also to Canadian-born workers who face workplace discrimination due to race, colour, or ethnicity. This NFB DVD is "a collection of 11 short films created to encourage discussion and dialogue on the issue of racism in the workplace. Their compelling storylines and characters shed light on direct and systemic racism and how these forms of discrimination against visible minority and Aboriginal peoples adversely affect individuals, organizations, communities and Canadian society at large." ("User Guide," Work For All, p. 2)
The films range in length from a two-minute, animated short feature (The Interview), to short documentaries. Although it is often claimed that immigrants are unskilled individuals who come to Canada and work at service jobs that no Canadian would want, Doctors Without Residency, Hanging On, and Une femme de tête, all demonstrate the difficulties of well-educated, highly-trained professionals who have immigrated to Canada in hopes of providing a better life for themselves and their families, but who cannot obtain work in the professions for which they have spent years educating themselves. Their resumés are rejected as "non-competitive" (Doctors Without Residency), or lacking "Quebec experience" (Une femme de tête), or if they manage to snag an interview, the interviewer notes that a candidate is "not the colour of a Landry" (the surname of the Canadian whom an immigrant student marries, and who is featured in Hanging On.) Spurious reasons, all, and all are the outcome of systemic discrimination.
And, it's not just immigrants who face difficulties. Employment opportunities can be equally challenging for Canadians who are visible minorities or of Aboriginal background. In As I Am, while a narrator reads a poem by Mohawk writer, Janet Marie Rogers, a series of black and white photo images depict the many roles, both in the workplace and in the community, taken by Aboriginal men and women. These photo portraits depict people proud of their culture, their work, and their contributions to the society in which they live and work. They ask the viewer to "Look again and see me as I really am." (As I Am.)
Some years back, Toronto academic Carl James undertook a study, published as Black Youth, Racism and Career Aspirations in the Big City. Making It is a short documentary in which James interviews some of the men and women who were part of that study. They have all "made it," but in order to succeed, there was pressure (real or perceived) to work "twice as hard to be half as good." (Making It.) Having "made it" and now occupying positions of authority, with the chance to hire others, do black managers discriminate? A tool and die supervisor states that as far as he's concerned, it all comes down to the best candidate for the job. For him, it's about ability, not colour.
When we see photos of Toronto model, Renée Thompson, we see an incredibly beautiful woman. Renée has moved to New York, hoping to land a spot in the runway lineup for New York's prestigious Fashion Week shows. She is gorgeous, ambitious, and charming, but in The Colour of Beauty, it seems that the modeling market is dominated by white girls (in the modeling world, women are "girls" and men are "boys."). No one actually says "no black girls allowed," but getting her well-turned foot in the door certainly involves a whole lot of pounding New York's pavement (and many polite rejections) as Renée shops her portfolio to potential employers. Still, she manages to hang on to her dream, and in Hanging On, black foreign students at the University of New Brunswick at Moncton describe their struggles to "hang on" and obtain employment commensurate with their professional training. To obtain a master's or doctoral degree and then to find employment in a call centre is, at best, a waste of human resources. As for those who give up the struggle and return home, they will not have positive things to say about Canada.
Although many of the individuals whose stories are told in Work For All have profoundly negative experiences, sometimes, serious issues are handled with wry humour. The Interview is an animated short, depicting the experience of Mukhtar, who is applying for an information technology position. As the interview proceeds, and Mukhtar provides details of his past work, animated graphics depict the interviewer's preconceptions (hearing that Mukhtar has worked in rural India, a vision of cows appears on the screen.) But upon learning that the candidate's degree is from Harvard, the situation turns around. Then, Mukhtar is told "You're the one that Human Resources raved about." Jaded uses role reversal to illustrate what it's like to be a "viz min" (visible minority) in a workplace. Red-haired, blue-eyed, and creamy-skinned, Jade Stone has a B. A. in Commerce, an MBA in Business Administration, but she's toiling as a mere office assistant In this office, Caucasians have all the subservient roles (typing, mail room clerk) while Wen Dee and Shaque King are in charge. Even when Jade gives 200% in order to finish up work on a very important presentation, at the last moment, Wen and Shaque decide that they can't take the chance of Jade's being the presenter of the project to the board (not one of whom is white.) The presentation is successful, Jade is rewarded with a new office chair (actually, a hand-me-down from Wen), and she resolves to work ever harder. After all, "it's so hard to be a person of no colour." (Jaded.)
Sterotypes are Linda Lee's (she played Wen Dee in Jaded) bread and butter. Screen Test shows what it's like to be a minority actor in the entertainment industry. Lee states that "being an actor is one of the worst occupations to be found on this planet," but "the only thing worse is to be an actor of colour." (Screen Test) Unfortunately, stereotypical roles (such as "opium den mistress") in mainstream television productions are standard; even worse, however, is the casting assumption that all Asians are alike. Were it not such a sad comment on stereotyping, you'd laugh at Lee's description of faking her way through an audition which requires her to scream in Chinese (Lee's ethnic background is Korean, and her command of that language is pretty basic.) Still, screaming and crying while uttering nonsense sentences in Korean lands her the role she needs to pays the rent and feed the cats.
Unique for its positive treatment of the challenges faced by immigrant job seekers, Voice Job opens with scenes of "speed dating-style" mini-interviews. Language, skin colour, and ethnicity can be barriers to landing an interview, but in Voice Job, we see a company which has created a positive spin on the situation. Voice Job is an agency which has its potential job applicants creating a video c.v. Potential employers see exactly who is applying – there are no surprises at a job applicant's ethnicity, skin colour, or language skills, and furthermore, the candidate is given the opportunity to showcase his or her talents. It's truly a refreshing, hopeful, and different perspective in this collection of films.
Even in provincial civil service and government agencies, individuals can face little or no support when harassed and insulted. Still Waiting for Justice is the story of Michael McKinnon, an Ontario corrections worker with Aboriginal roots, who has spent 18 years seeking redress for the racial harassment he and his wife experienced in their workplaces. McKinnon challenged the anti-Aboriginal remarks made in his presence and asked management for an apology. At first, he was met with indifference, but over time, hostility escalated. Eighteen years later, he is on "paid leave," but it is certainly no vacation. Boxes and boxes of documents attest to the legal fight he has undertaken in order to obtain a remedy. The final frames of the film show him and his wife, walking through a tranquil, idyllic rural landscape, which completely belies the ugly reality of their situation.
Work For All was produced with the participation of HRSDC (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada) and, as such, it provokes thought about the waste of human resources resulting from highly trained people remaining un- or under-employed. With none of the films longer than 17 minutes in running time, classroom teachers in senior high schools can show a film, undertake discussion (the accompanying "User's Guide" provides possible themes to consider, post-screening questions, and suggests other films in Work For All which explore similar concepts), and have time for a related instructional activity. However, none of these films is a mere "time-filler" – all raise serious questions about overt or covert racism in the workforce. Useful in a number of instructional contexts (Sociology, Psychology, Aboriginal Studies, and where thematically connected, English/Language Arts classes), the content will work best for students in Grade 10 and beyond. English subtitling ensures that films originally produced in the French language can be used in English language environments and the accompanying DVD La Tête de l'Emploi provides the same content in Canada's other official language.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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