Movie Review: “The Take”

I asked for & received a review copy of the 2004 documentary, The Take (directed by Avi Lewis & written by Naomi Klein)

The Take tells the story of the growing number of factory workers in Argentina who, instead of acquiescing in unemployment when their factories are shut down, take matters into their own hands by occupying the factories and starting them up again, without the oversight, or permission, of their former bosses. The workers’ motto: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” In particular, the film focuses on the efforts of 30 workers to re-start the bankrupt Buenos Aires auto-parts factory (“Forja San Martin”) that once employed them.

Film-makers Lewis & Klein begin the movie by telling us that their visit to Argentina was driven by the desire to demonstrate something their political leanings demand they believe, namely that there are alternatives to global capitalism. Klein narrates: “There’s only so much protesting can accomplish…at a certain point, you have to talk about what you’re fighting for.” To which Lewis adds, “So we decided to shut up for a while. Our opponents wanted alternatives…so did we.” And where better to look than a place where workers are casting off their chains, running their factories by direct democracy and (according to the workers) doing a better job of it than their former bosses?

As for various kinds of “bosses,” well, any good drama needs a bad guy, and The Take features 2 of them. One is former Argentinian President Carlos Menem, whose policies (implemented at the urging of the International Monetary Fund) are blamed for the countries serious economic woes. The other villain is Luis Zanon, owner of another factory — the Zanon Ceramics Factory — now also under worker control. If this weren’t a documentary — if you didn’t see Zanon with your own eyes — he wouldn’t be a plausible villain. He’s too perfect for the role…like a smoother, better-groomed version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. He smiles into the camera and smugly states that, yes, of course, he will get his factory back. The government will give it back to him, he claims. The subtext: that’s how things work for rich Argentinians with connections in high places.

But the segments about political corruption and corporate greed are really just backdrops. The real story of The Take is the story of the 30 workers trying to restart the Forja San Martin. These are good men, hard-working men, who just want to be earn a living to support their families. Hence their motto: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” In the end, it’s a heart-warming story. We want the factory to work the way the workers say it will: managed through democratic decision-making, equal pay for all, etc. We want to believe that, under the workers’ cooperative, Forja San Martin will be run ethically and efficiently. We want to believe the optimistic words of the cooperative’s charismatic leader, Freddy, whose movie-star looks and strong, honest face make him both an obvious leader and an obvious focal point for the movie:

In the cooperative, we’ll all be administrators. I’ll check on what he does, and he’ll check on me. Of course, we’re going to have to be more conscientious, and not be too bourgeois, like before under the boss…when you would duck around the corner for a break whenever you could. Now, no. If a light is on, turn it off if it’s not necessary. There won’t be exaggerated salaries like there were before, which is one of the things that caused all thiss…the salaries will be equal.

Of course, it’s not so clear that what Freddy envisions is really the “alternative” to global capitalism that Lewis and Klein are seeking. It’s just a different management structure. Under control of the Cooperative, Forja San Martin will still buy raw materials and sell finished products, while consuming energy and producing pollution and waste along the way. The decision-making process will be different, but the fundamentals of commerce will not.

One final note: the context — one that includes financial desperation and political upheaval — makes it hard to evaluate, ethically, what goes on in this movie. Everyone seems wrong, in some way or another. The Argentinian government is portrayed as corrupt, and corporate bosses as evil. On the other hand, what the members of the cooperative have done is illegal. They’ve stolen control of the factory. And in any sane world, no amount of corporate malfeasance could justify unilateral appropriation of a multi-million dollar piece of property. But if the story told by the film-makers is even close to accurate, the world the workers live in is anything but sane, and they’re struggling, after all, to feed their families without the help of the power-brokers who see them as mere pawns in a very high-stakes game.

The cynic in me, of course, doesn’t believe Freddy’s claim that under the Cooperative, everything will be better. Why would anyone shirk their responsibilities, when they’re part-owners of the factory? See the enormous literature on collective action problems. How could things not go well, given that all workers have equal input through a democratic decision process? See the literature, and history more generally, on the limits of direct democracy. And so on. But despite these academic worries, the film is well worth watching, as is the experiment — however naive — in alternatives forms of commerce currently under way in Argentina’s worker-managed factories.

Relevant Links:
IMDB’s page for The Take
The Take (official website)
Watch the trailer
Review of the move, by Roger Ebert (thumbs up!)

Relevant Books:
No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, by Naomi Klein
Globalization: Capitalism and Its Alternatives, by Leslie Sklair
Here’s a link to buy the DVD from Amazon: The Take (DVD)

See more movie reviews from this Blog.

7 comments so far

  1. Jacob on

    On the issue of stealing, it may be a little more complicated than this. Remember that the factory is worth less than the workers are collectively owed in back pay.Besides this, the workers’ claim is that the factory owners behaved illegally, which gives them a legal right to take over the factory. The fact that the bankruptcy judge does not recognize this is an important point against them. However, they do appeal to appropriate authorities — legistative officials.On a larger scale, Locke, Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Jefferson, etc. would affirm a right of revolution. In recent years this has expanded to some amount of civil disobedience. Which is simply to say that when the constituted authorities refuse to enforce justice, people have some limited right to circumvent the law.

  2. Anonymous on

    Read Proudhon’s “What is Property?”. Private ownership of the means of production (as opposed to property for active personal use, like a home, a bed, a tooth brush etc) means that capitalists enjoy nonlabor income extracted from workers — collectively imposing a “work for a boss or else” exploitative status quo on a large % of the population. Thus, when the workers collectivize businesses, the don’t steal, they actual PUT AN END to the stealing and oppression of the capitalist. So you have it backward: In any SANE world, no amount of malfeasance by a democratic worker council could justify unilateral capitalist (or government) “appropriation of a multi-million dollar piece of property.”

    As for the the literature on the “problems” of collective problems and direct democracy, the author of this article doesn’t cite it. I suspect he refers to the accounts of the failures of economies directed by state elites under the banner of “collective decision making” and “workers democracy”, because all the literature on REAL workers’ control shows it increases efficiency and, of course, freedom–it eliminates wage slavery. For example, the Spanish Anarchist experiment in the 30s clearly proved it. Anybody can read the literature on the Spanish CNT (Peirats’, Kelsey, Souchy etc) to see it for themselves. Here’s a short online excerpt from Souchy’s account of collectivization in Catalonia
    If the supposed “enormous literature on collective action problems” simply refers to statements by state elites, we may as well believe Hitler saying he wanted peace and self-defense and proceed to say “don’t pursue peace and self defense: Hitler tried it and it lead to war and mass murder”

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Dear “Anonymous:

    No, that’s not at all what I mean when I refer to the problems of collective action. It has nothing to do with states ruled by elites. So your entire last paragraph is off-target.
    ‘Problems of collective action’ arise any time a group (of any size) tries to accomplish a common goal, in conditions under which all tend to benefit regardless of their contribution. Basically, it’s hard to coordinate people in the absence of a boss (or leader or something), even when they all value the common goal.
    It’s a common concept in the social sciences, well-documented empirically and well-supported theoretically. You can get a rough idea here:

    There’s nothing stopping workers from forming collectives or cooperatives if they choose to. There are in fact laws in place to make it easier. It’s just not very common. For an understanding of why, see Henry Hansmann’s excellent book, “The Ownership of Enterprise.”

  4. Dan Wheeler on

    Very interesting! The spirit of the workers reminds me a lot of what is happening in parts of Detroit right now. I am putting this on my Netflix queue.

  5. […] To see examples of such a temptation, see the 2004 Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary, The Take, about the takeover of a defunct Argentinian factory by its former employees. Lewis and Klein […]

  6. […] on my list is a movie you probably haven’t heard of, namely The Take (2004). This one isn’t really a criticism of any particular company, or of any particular […]

  7. […] movement as “anti-capitalist” is reminiscent of a big theme in the 2006 documentary, The Take, which was directed by Avi Lewis & written by Naomi Klein. The Take is about a group of workers […]

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