POV: Describe this film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Almudena Carracedo: Made in L.A. tells the story of three Latina immigrants who work in Los Angeles garment factories and how their lives are transformed as they wage a three-year campaign to obtain basic labor protections. The film follows their journey as they start to understand who they are and what their rights are, and as they start to find their own voices.
Robert Bahar: The film also represents the struggles of immigrant workers in other areas, in day labor or in agricultural work, for example, who are fighting for their rights.
POV: How did you come to make the film?
Carracedo: I read a story about working conditions in the garment industry in Los Angeles that covered the deplorable conditions in some of the factories. I was struck by what I read, so I approached the Garment Worker Center, a nonprofit that serves immigrant garment workers that had just opened in Los Angeles. Initially I intended to do a little film about the working conditions, but as I spent time with the women and I saw their humor and their depth, I realized that it was a much bigger story as well as a story about them. The film took longer to complete than the five months I had originally planned, but in the process I was able to capture some of the women’s intimate fears and joys, and also their deep transformation as they were impacted by their struggle.
POV: How long did it take to make Made in L.A.?
Carracedo: Five years. It was a long process that went along with their campaign, which took many years. The first four years we had limited funding, but in a way that became a strength because we had to continue working bit by bit and captured the characters’ development over time.
POV: Can you tell us about the women’s actions against Forever 21?
Bahar: The campaign came about because a number of workers coming through the Garment Worker Center all had complaints about violations in different factories where they worked. Minimum wage, overtime and working conditions came up. As they talked about those issues, people started to see a pattern: The workers were assembling clothing that was sold in the retail chain Forever 21. That’s where the idea came from to not just pursue claims against the particular factories where they were working, but also to pursue a strategy aimed at the retailer.
Carracedo: Instead of going through the Labor Commissioners Office, the workers united and launched a boycott because they felt a responsibility to improve the conditions for many other thousands of workers in Los Angeles. They didn’t know it was going to take so many years and that it was going to transform the way they saw themselves — as people and eventually as organizers as well.
POV: What about Forever 21’s reaction?
Bahar: Forever 21 responded that the workers’ complaints were the responsibility of the contractors of the specific factories because the workers who had complaints were employees of those factories, and Forever 21 had contracts simply with the manufacturers, not the factories.
POV: Going after the public face of the retailer seems like a logical thing to do, but from a legal standpoint, it wasn’t so simple, was it? What’s the strategy for holding a retailer accountable?
Bahar: It’s valid for a retailer or any company that has a contract with a subcontractor or with a manufacturer who then has subcontractors to be protected by that contract. A lot of businesses are structured that way. In the particular case of the apparel industry, because at the Garment Worker Center they saw a number of factories with similar issues that were all linked to Forever 21, the Garment Worker Center and the lawyers decided to pursue it both as a boycott, which had a public face to bring attention to the issue and then as a lawsuit, which more slowly proceeded through the legal system. Part of the strategy of holding a retailer responsible for conditions in factories way down the chain rests on the underlying concept that the retailers set the prices. If a retailer sets a price and then they go to a manufacturer and say, “We want to sell a product line at such-and-such a price,” then the manufacturers go to these factories and say, “We were given such-and-such a price that we have to meet, so we can only give you so much.” Then the contractor has to figure out what it will take to run the heating, air-conditioning and equipment and how much they can pay the workers. Ultimately the retailer’s decision about what the price is going to be in the mall that you or I might go to has waves of impact down the chain. You can put pressure on the factories where people are working, but if the price doesn’t change at the retail end, then you’re never going to address the bigger systemic issue.
POV: How did you choose these three particular women to focus on?
Carracedo: As I started spending time at the Garment Worker Center, I made natural connections with some of the women there, either because they were more active or because I saw something beautiful in them that I was intrigued by. In the case of Lupe, for example, she was very funny. She’s sassy and articulate, making her a natural leader, which comes out quickly in the film. We joke a lot in Spanish, so there was good chemistry between us. In the case of María, she struck me as a very delicate, beautiful person, and I was intrigued by the things that she was not saying about her life. As I discovered more about her, I saw María as someone who represented what a lot of women go through. With Maura, I was attracted to how shy she was, how immature she looked and yet how she carried herself with such pride. I wanted to understand better that combination and get to know her as she started to assert her rights.
POV: You worked very closely with these women. How did you establish trust between you?
Carracedo: At the beginning, when I approached them at the Garment Worker Center, I explained what I wanted to do. Sometimes it’s not easy to understand why someone would work on a project for free. But they understood very quickly and were honored that someone wanted to hear their story. It mattered to them that I was a woman and spoke Spanish, my native language, with them, sharing their daily experiences and their protests during this campaign. Trust is a matter of time, of filmmaker commitment to portraying a story with respect. You prove that you have good intentions.
POV: What was your greatest satisfaction in making Made in L.A.?
Carracedo: When we finished the film, before any big audience saw it we showed it to the women individually. Their response was incredibly moving. They felt incredibly honored and that we had portrayed their stories accurately and beautifully. For both of us, knowing that we had honored their journey was the greatest satisfaction.
Bahar: It was also fulfilling to accomplish the objective of putting a human face on these bigger issues that people talk about. Both Almudena and I are also really proud that the film has a certain lyricism, partly because we were able to work with the composer. We were able to bring a sense of style to the film because we had the time and the funding.
POV: How did you wrap up the film?
Carracedo: The film had a natural ending at the end of their campaign, but we didn’t want the film to end on the Hollywood victory because it was not a full victory. Any real-life victory has shades, so we wanted to portray some of what happened afterward. About a year later, Lupe was invited to go with a delegation from the United States to protest the WTO, the World Trade Organization, in Hong Kong. Within two days, I bought a plane ticket, and I was there for four days, filming about 14 hours. On the plane, I realized it was the right decision to go because it was really the end of the story: Lupe, in a different part of the world, thinking back about her journey. As she says, she never thought she’d go to New York, much less to Hong Kong. Hong Kong helped make the film about a worldwide story about fighting for your rights, globalization and trade today.
POV: Whom do you want to see this film?
Carracedo: I would love for recent immigrants to this country as well as not-so-recent immigrants to see this film. We would like the youth to see this film because they are consumers who often don’t understand the impact of their choices on the people who are producing those goods, whether they’re garments or food or something else.
Bahar: Certainly we’re very proud of the fact that the film is completely bilingual and that Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences can experience it either separately in homes when it’s on television or together at a community engagement screening. We hope that it builds some bridges.
We’re talking to different grassroots organizations and getting interest in screening the film, which can help people start a dialogue about immigration reform, working conditions, rights for immigrant workers, and about women’s issues. We see the film having a long life in terms of organizations’ incorporating it into their educational materials. We’re also experimenting with the idea of making shorter versions of the film or making little sections of the film that could be like video modules that address one particular issue in about 10 minutes that an organization could specifically use rather than having to screen all 70 minutes.
POV: What do you say to people who see this film and want to make a difference? What can they do?
Carracedo: Just seeing the film and being moved is a sign of some internal shift in the way that you see immigrants. Next time you see an immigrant in the street, you’ll probably look at them differently. In terms of external actions, right now there’s a lot of debate over the immigrant reform policies; in that regard, you can participate in campaigns to express your views. On the fashion industry side, there are a lot of things you can do to become a responsible consumer. Your economic choices have an impact on human beings like you and me, and you can go to our website and check all those places where you can also make a difference in your community.
POV: What are some other filmmakers that have had an impact on you in recent years?
Carracedo: Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley — not a documentary film — impacted me because it went deeper into personal reasons why people become activists. Darwin’s Nightmare also had an impact on me. I tend to like long process films with beautiful outcomes.
Bahar: One filmmaker and two films that I always come back to are Barbara Kopple and the films Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream. They’re both films that show a struggle around labor rights that takes a long time, and that’s very dramatic. I remember watching those films in the basement of my college library by myself. They’re part of the reason why I wanted to make documentaries.
POV: What’s your advice for a first-time filmmaker?
Bahar: Sometimes hitting a wall or an obstacle and thinking my way out of it means reflecting on why I made the film to begin with. What’s my heart telling me this film should be about? Sometimes it’s just a logistical challenge where you have to reimagine how you were going to make the whole thing to begin with. If you can stay true to what you wanted to do you can usually get past the obstacles that you hit.
Carracedo: Perseverance. You have to listen to everyone else, and sometimes it’s hard because you have to maintain your vision and your passion intact. You have to be like an antenna, open to every bit of feedback that you can possibly receive, and continue improving the film day by day, year by year.