Fellows Perspectives: Michael Blain

Throughout the year, we’ll be featuring each of our Fellows as guest bloggers where they will share their thoughts on their films, filmmaking, or anything they think would be of interest to the documentary community. Michael Blain shares his blog today while in the middle of production and a Kickstarter campaign for his film  Can't Take It No More!


Yesterday morning we drove through the Ozark Mountains, heading to the global headquarters of the largest private employer on the planet. From a non-descript, one-story home office building in Bentonville, Arkansas, this company oversees a global manufacturing, shipping and retail empire that dictates prices and standards to vendors and suppliers, and effectively sets the terms and conditions of employment for millions of workers around the globe, whether it employs them directly or indirectly.

As you may have already guessed, I am talking about Walmart.

And this is the week of Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting. A mix of celebrity MCs, executive-led pep rallies, and largely pro forma votes on company matters -- all of which takes place before thousands in a packed arena at the University of Arkansas -- the meeting is as much a corporate party for thousands of employees who attend as it is a business decision-making gathering.

And, this year, as for the last two years, striking Walmart employees from around the United States are also in town, taking their calls for respect, fair pay, and economic justice directly to company executives and shareholders.

For the last five days, my co-producer, Kiley Kraskouskas, and I have been filming with striking Walmart workers in Arizona and Arkansas, for our feature-length documentary Can’t Take It No More!

From the Arizona mansion of multi-billionaire Rob Walton earlier this week, to Walmart's Home Office yesterday, to the company's shareholder meeting today, the strikers have been speaking out to the company and to the media.

Low pay and lack of benefits are almost always top concerns of Walmart employees. But the issue that has most often been cited is the day-in and day-out disrespect and mistreatment by their managers at work. It's not just the poverty wages, they tell us. It's not just the lack of health care and paid time off. It's having managers routinely screaming at you in front of customers. It's managers not promptly calling the ER when your father (who also worked at Walmart) had a stroke at work. It's managers refusing to give you consistent schedules so you can work out child care or go back to school part-time. It’s Walmart managers denying “light duty” work duties for a pregnant employee, compelling her to lift boxes weighing 50 lbs and more. And then, after she has a miscarriage in a Walmart bathroom, disciplining her for medical absences they already approved.

In documenting such stories, we are learning a lot about how much emotional pain one company can inflict on so many workers and their families. While some of their stories are heart-wrenching, we are also documenting how they are speaking out, connecting with each other, and helping to build a growing national and global movement of low-wage workers.

We’ll be filming with workers across Walmart’s global empire for at least the next six months. From garment factories in Bangladesh, to California warehouses, to retail Walmart stores, we will follow workers from the ground up, and show how standing up – and standing together – has profound and transformational effects upon them, their families and their co-workers.

This is my first feature documentary and Kiley has been a big part of my making a transition into features.  She is an experienced producer, and crowdfunding expert. She has been invaluable to the entire pre-production and production process. This topic is so large and the potential narrative arcs so numerous and intertwining, that having each other as co-producer sounding boards while we film is enabling us to better process and interpret what we are seeing and hearing, and discern the patterns, themes and connections between so many workers' stories.

She's also on the Docs In Progress Board and encouraged me to apply for this year's Fellowship program.  As a 2014 Docs in Progress Fellow, I now feel grounded in a mutually supportive community of documentary filmmakers who are all eager to be sounding boards and cheerleaders for each other's projects. Given our wide mix of professional backgrounds and filmmaking experience, on most any question about gear, workflow, story arc, character development, or making a living while making a film, someone else in our cohort has likely already wrangled with the topic, or is currently trying to figure it out as well. Sharing insights, lessons learned, and constructive feedback helps us all to move forward on our projects.

As I continue my own professional transition from doing communications work for non-profits and labor unions, to documentary director/producer, it's great to be part of a community that is so committed to supporting both new and experienced filmmakers. As we head into more challenging story and production aspects of our film, I look forward to both relying upon and contributing more to this network in coming months.

If you want to support the work of one of our Fellows, Can't Take It No More! has a Kickstarter campaign which continues through June 18, 2014. Find out more.

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