Rita di Santo interviews the British director Lech Kowalski, director of of Blow It to Bits
Timely and urgent, but not in the daily papers, Blow It to Bits is the story of workers who threaten to blow up a factory. A dense, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking documentary, which clearly exposes the enemy within.
The director is Lech Kowalski. Born in London to Polish refugees who survived Stalin's gulags, he now lives in France, making underground films that are a map of his personal journey. Meeting him at the Filmmaker Film Festival, in Milan, he told me about his movie:
“The strike in question involves GM&S Industry France, it is a rural manufacturer providing auto parts for industry giants Renault and PSA, which owns Peugeot and Citroen. Initially a booming business, the factory whittled down over the years as production shifted overseas, as most French cars are now composed of parts produced abroad and then only assembled in France. In 2017 GM&S threatened to close down entirely and lay off the 285 workers, but they fought back in the hope of salvaging their jobs. Blow It to Bits is about the workers’ struggles.”
Kowalski heard that the workers had taken over the factory and to defend their jobs were threatening to blow it up if their demand to continue production was not met. The film’s title comes from graffiti that the workers had scrawled on a giant gas tank triggered to explode: “On va tout peter” — “We’re going to blow it all up.”
France was closer to the election and there was a fear that the French would vote for Le Pen and a right wing government. Kowalski explained:
“I spent a month and a half with these workers. It was very depressing because there were suicides, it was just terrible, a lot of them moved away. But what was interesting is some of them were still in court, fighting to get some money for eight years. The story I wanted to tell was about workers that live away from the big cities. I decided I'm going to stay here, because these people are innocent. They had a place in society, they used to live lives in a way they wanted. They had their fishing or hunting passion. They're very intelligent people and they were fighting for something. They were fighting also for their lifestyle.”
How did you develop your story? I liked how they stand up to power with an unusual confidence in confronting the new order.
I wanted to make a film about the people. I didn't tell them that I was making a film right away. They thought I was a journalist, filming and filming. I didn't really want to get too close to them, because I wanted to observe them from the point of view of how the society sees them. The idea was to make it a collective film, not a film about the leader. Because the collective action was what gave them the strength. It was not really a fight against Renault and Peugeot so much. It was a fight against the government. Because the government was not supporting them.
It's very hard to fight Renault and Peugeot, they have a lot of power. You can do a few things; you can have a blockade and this kind of thing. But what they were angry about was that there was no one to turn to for help, from across the political spectrum. Politicians were antagonistic towards them. For me this fight was a search for a new kind of democracy.
What was your main aim?
I really wanted to make a film that the workers would enjoy, from an aesthetic point of view. It's not an action film, like a Hollywood film. It's a film made for the class that I am part of. And the class that the film is about. My father and my mother both were workers. I wanted to make a film that's for the average person who normally would not go to see this kind of film.
Can you tell me more about the GM&S?
The GM&S story is a story that has been going on for many years. It started out as a toy factory and it got bigger, bigger and bigger. Different investors bought the company until it became GM&S. And at that point, there was a threat to close the factory down completely. The factory used to have 600 workers a long time ago. Over the years with different owners, it became smaller and smaller and smaller.
Most of the workers were in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. For them there was no future. How can you get a new job at that age? In some respects, they have won. Because the new owner bought the factory and although he fired half the people, he kept 120.
This whole problem with the factories, and this whole problem with the changing of our society, it's happening because multinational corporations are trying to find ways to make as much profit as possible. Not necessarily even for themselves, but for the stockholders. Because at the end of the day, the stockholders are the ones that empower.
These companies relocate to places where the employment laws are less strong, but also where other laws are different. Because for instance, there are fewer laws for preserving the environment in these new places where these factories are being built, like Romania, Morocco, South America, Mexico, China, and Vietnam. The laws are very loose and people who work in these factories are very close to slaves.
At the same time, these companies are making more profit and squeezing more money out of every aspect of the manufacturing process.
I was very impressed about their mood. When they block the high speed lane on the motorway, they are not aggressive or violent. Is it solidarity that makes them so optimistic and strong?
This is an interesting question for me. It's kind of a mystery why they had this kind of optimism and this kind of deep commitment, emotional commitment, to keep going. I think when you are fighting for something, you transfer your emotions into a kind of anger and frustration with the system. Then you want to be together to fight and get as much as you can. Because there is this desire to fight for a moral kind of victory.
The fight becomes more important than winning or losing. These are like partisans. At one point you know that maybe you'll get killed, but you go out there because you believe in what you're doing. And that's why this film is important for me. The story is hopeful because we knew as we were filming, the workers, and myself, and Odil (his partner and producer), we knew what this was not going to end well. Because it never does. Because the corporate system and the government is just too against these people to make it work. But they did get 120 workers to keep their jobs, which is a victory. The glass is half full or half empty, I would like to say that the glass is very full – of hope.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.