Filmmaker Interview with Director Rachel Lears

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

At a popular bakery café, residents of New York’s Upper East Side get bagels and coffee served with a smile 24 hours a day. But behind the scenes, undocumented immigrant workers face sub-legal wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers who will fire them for calling in sick. Mild-mannered sandwich maker Mahoma López has never been interested in politics, but in January 2012, he convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight back.

Risking deportation and the loss of their livelihood, the workers team up with a diverse crew of innovative young organizers and take the unusual step of forming their own independent union, launching themselves on a journey that will test the limits of their resolve. In one roller-coaster year, they must overcome a shocking betrayal and a two-month lockout. Lawyers will battle in back rooms, Occupy Wall Street protesters will take over the restaurant, and a picket line will divide the neighborhood. If they can win a contract, it will set a historic precedent for low-wage workers across the country. But whatever happens, Mahoma and his coworkers will never be exploited again.

Rachel Lears, Co-Director

What motivated you to make this film?

[Rachel Lears] We were interested in telling a dramatic, vérité story that explored critical national issues of economic inequality while reaching wide audiences with a character-based narrative. When we met the protagonists of THE HAND THAT FEEDS, their journey was just beginning and the story turned out to be even more dramatic and engaging than we had anticipated.

What do you hope that audiences take away from watching your film?

We want audiences to take away a feeling that collective action can be successful in creating social change, especially when focused on locally grounded issues and led by the people most affected by those issues; we hope the film combats cynicism in this regard. We also hope it helps expand the idea of participation beyond making a donation or signing a petition to include taking direct action on the street and in the workplace to call for specific changes. And we also hope the film gets people thinking about solidarity — what it means to stand beside another human being and support her or his struggle as equals — as opposed to charity, which, though necessary and important, can sustain a sense that a more privileged “we” are helping a less fortunate “them”.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

Have their been any recent developments?

Since the store reopened in January 2013 with the union and contract in place, the story has remained open and most of the protagonists of the film are still employed there. (The store changed its name in 2014 from Hot & Crusty to Bröd Kitchen but is still located on 63rd st and 2nd avenue in New York.) Mahoma López, the main protagonist of the film, has gone on to become the co-executive director of the Laundry Workers Center (while continuing to work at the restaurant full time) and organize workers at other companies around New York City; Maurilio Ortega, another key member of the campaign, also does organizing work now in addition to his restaurant work. In general the treatment of the workers under their union contract since 2013 has been very good, a huge difference from the lack of respect and labor violations that predated the campaign. However, as of January 2016, the contract is up for renegotiation, and the company is threatening to fire all the workers and close the store to avoid renewing the agreement.

This is an evolving situation — visit or follow TheHandThatFeedsDoc on Facebook for more frequent updates.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

If you could narrow it down — what is one personal revelation, or takeaway you had while making this film?

The hardest thing about making this film was not knowing how the story would end — whether the protagonists would win their campaign. At times it seemed that we were more anxious than they were —

–and their courage, in the face of risks much, much greater than ours, kept us grounded and kept us going through the difficult moments of the production process.

How did your story evolve from day one to your very last day in post — is your story what you thought it would be?

More than most projects we have worked on, this story actually stayed relatively consistent from initial concept through the editing process. As we shot we spoke with the subjects about how the story might progress, and many of the things they predicted would happen eventually did. In the editing process, we were somewhat constrained by the plot, which had to be represented accurately, but it took a lot of creative work around that to explore different ways of establishing character and tone, as well as the best way to convey information alongside emotional content.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

What’s one rewarding experience from making this film?

Our festival premiere screening at Full Frame in 2014, and our New York Premiere at DOC NYC later that year, were extremely rewarding because the subjects were there to witness how strongly their story impacts audiences. Many other live screening events since then have also been very rewarding, especially when the story resonates on a personal level with audience members who have immigrant backgrounds or who work in low wage industries.

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Jean Rouch, Hubert Sauper, Adam Curtis, Grizzly Man, To Be and To Have, The Overnighters, Virunga; any documentary that tells a story that feels like fiction, and docs that explore deep structural political themes through engaging storytelling.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

What did you shoot on?

Canon XF 305 and Canon 6D. The reenactment scenes were shot in slow motion with tilt-shift lenses to distinguish them from vérité sequences. The aerial shot of the Manhattan skyline was shot with the Canon 6D simply pressed against the window of the Roosevelt Island Tram, which connects the area of Manhattan where the story took place to Queens along the Queensboro Bridge.

What were a few stylistic choices or techniques that you used to help tell your story?

Most of the film is shot in vérité style, as the events unfolded in front of the camera. But in order to tell the part of the story that occurred before we began shooting, as well as certain events that we were not able to film for legal or logistical reasons, we used other filmmaking techniques that are common in documentaries. 1) We incorporated archival footage shot by the workers and organizers on their cell phones and camcorders as well as public domain footage by the NYPD. 2) We placed certain scenes that were shot later on earlier in the film to represent similar scenes that we know occurred but were not filmed. 3) For some scenes that were more general in nature, we asked the subjects to tell us in the present tense how they felt at the moments of events that had occurred in the past. 4) For some specific scenes that we were not able to shoot as they happened, we worked with those who were present to create reenactments, using a special lens and slow motion to separate these segments visually.

THE HAND THAT FEEDS, Production Still

What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Be aware of your subjects’ agency in leading their own struggles and represent this with integrity, and speak with them often about what it means to lend your story to a film and what everyone’s expectations are.

For more great docs, join us over in SIMA RAMA — a monthly online film club for bold, beautiful and award-winning impact cinema that connects members directly with creators, experts, live forums and curated actions.

Written by Erinn Sullivan, SIMA