The Judges Weigh In: What Makes a Great Short Labor Film?

Look Back invited the judges of the LabourStart Labour Video of the Year competition to respond to the question: What makes a great short labor film?


The short films that really caught my attention were in fact "short films," not PowerPoint presentations or collages of still frames set to music, with the length playing an important part: anything much longer than two minutes and the impact of the film's message became lost, confused or diminished. An engaging video, with a clear, concise message and some clean production work really came across as fresh, and with some humor, heart or mixture of both, truly stood out as a winner.


Brevity -- 2 minutes or less -- wit, creativity, strong visuals and music.

JON GARLOCK, Rochester Labor Film Series

Having screened a large number of the labor short submissions I'd start by noting my reaction to a great many of them: NEEDS CONTEXT. That the format does not lend itself to documentary was demonstrated by the compressed, fragmented coverage of labor issues in these shorts. Perhaps this resulted from stitching together real-time video footage, often depending on sound from the video. While such pieces may be comprehensible to actual participants, they are difficult if not impossible for the casual viewer to follow.

In contrast, the pieces that I enjoyed and was informed by were scripted, directed and acted and relied on verbal or visual irony to make their points:

What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us? sets up the clever premise of employees attempting to badmouth unions but discovering in the process just how much unions have accomplished. (It helps that the group's leader is very well acted!)

Just Another Cog in the Machine has neither actors nor voice-over and relies solely on a series of placards which, read in one sequence, describe a worker's disaffection from the workplace but, read in a different sequence, show a very satisfied worker. This unique minimalism works brilliantly, forcing the viewer to attend to the words and feelings communicated on the placards.

The CUPE ads,  a series of very brief two-person skits devoted to a university labor struggle, though unequally clever or convincing, still succeed in laying out the issues and inviting the viewer to take a side.

Probably the best labor short I've seen, The Job (not one of those reviewed) is also a well-thought out and well-acted skit which turns the immigrant day labor issue on its head by showing a latino in a pick-up truck arriving at a corporate office building to hire for the day accountants and other professional workers, who then hop into his mariachi-blaring vehicle. It's deliciously ironic and right on point and is more persuasive than many a feature documentary...

From my own responses, then,  I deduce that a successful labor short film responds to a widely-relevant labor issue and approaches it with originality, humor and perhaps with oblique irony. It also eschews documentary.  

ERIC LEE, LabourStart

I voted for the winning video (What have unions ever done for us?) for a number of reasons.  First of all, it was very funny.  Second, it was highly professional -- you could sense just how good the actors were, how well-written the script was, the first-rate camera work and sound.  Third, it took a well-known story (from Monty Python's Life of Brian) and gave it a nice twist, and it was an appropriate choice of story to give that twist to.  But fourth and most important, it was effective -- the video was part of a very successful campaign by the trade union movement to put union rights, and the role of unions, into the center of Australian politics.  The result was a crushing electoral defeat for the right-wing Howard government and the victory for the party of the unions, the Australian Labor Party.  What could better define what we want from a union video than that?

I also liked The Janitor and the CUPE strike ads (which were also a variation on the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads) and thought that John Wood's Just another cog in the machine were all excellent.

I did not, however, like two of the videos that made it to the shortlist and I'll explain why.

The climate change video [A call to action] to me seemed superficial and cliched.  I learned nothing from it, I was not convinced of anything by it, and it didn't make me laugh.  Other than holding up a sign and saying unions should care about this issue, and that we do, I didn't really get the point.  My guess is that people voted for it because they too want to highlight concern about climate change, not because this was especially interesting.

The Vale video, however, [VALE INCO's CEO Roger Fuhrer Loses His Fight...] was the worst of the lot even though it got a lot of votes -- I think mostly in sympathy with the strikers at Vale Inco.  But this video does them no service.  First of all, it's been done before.  I've seen this very same clip from Downfall with various amusing subtitles added.  Second, it required no effort to do.  (Compare this to the amount of work that went into all the other videos.)  But third and most important, I found it morally offensive.  You simply cannot use Hitler every time you don't like someone or something.  It trivializes the Holocaust, and by turning Hitler into the symbol of every bad thing, you contribute to a "normalization" of how we view Nazism.  After all, if the head of a company is just as bad as Hitler was, it means that Hitler was no worse than a company boss.  Obviously the film-makers (or subtitlers, to be honest) would disagree, and this was obviously not their intention, but I oppose the use of this kind of material for this purpose.

FRANK SAPTEL, Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLiFF)

I haven’t always found it easy to describe what a labour video/film is, but the best definition is one of the unofficial slogans for CLiFF: the festival being about work, workers and issues affecting either (or both).

The best labour film is a short one. I prefer under three minutes, but under ten also works well. Because we are a national festival, we have a package called “Festival in a Box” where we choose films and send them to Location Coordinators who don’t have the time to organise absolutely everything. In this way, we can send out a greater number of films to many more places, familiarising their audiences with more issues.

A good labour film is also one that is funny and pokes fun at ourselves. Too many people get in and stay in because of a passionate reason (as they should). That is also the reason they ultimately leave.

A good labour film should transcend only problems, and should make us celebrate and laugh as well as making us angry and cry.

While none of us may be able to properly describe what a good labour video is, we may be able to describe what it should do.

A good labour video should make us think and make us act!

ADAM WRIGHT, Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO

It needs to grab your attention within the first 10 seconds... either with great graphics, intriguing photography, emotive music, or all of the above.

There needs to be high quality production... no-one likes watching an out-of-focus and hard-to-hear video.

Short, simple and creative is the way to go. The more imaginative and creative, the better it will be received. A good example is Just Another Cog - it's short, very simple, yet very creative and imaginative.

And last, but not least, it needs to have a strong work/labor/union angle.

JOSHUA AMBERG, Look Back Labor

Assured understanding of both message and audience; production values aren't that much of a concern for me as long as there is a clear and definite vision or objective motivating what you are trying to communicate. Do not, however, overlook the importance of sensible sound design, particularly the appropriate use of any extraneous soundtrack elements, and balancing foreground - especially spoken dialogue from an in-frame source - and background sound.