I Witness (2003): The Precariat as the Threatened Class

Although perhaps no more brutal than the numerous films about the murders of “illegal aliens” slipping across the Mexican border to the USA or Mexican women kidnapped off the streets of Tijuana, I Witness (directed by Rowdy Herrington) has an even more generous range of corrupt and duped individuals than these other films.

The setting is an American-owned maquiladora undergoing a unionization drive. The company certainly doesn’t want the union, the local bent cops don’t want the union, and even American officials and middlemen don’t want the union, but at least for them it’s because it will cause too much trouble and maybe not even help the workers in the end.

Into this thicket of thieves and connivers strides James Rhodes, a human rights observer played by Jeff Bridges, who has been demoted because he duked a reporter complaining about the poor food at a Sudanese hotel during a famine.

Two sets of murders remain unsolved during this union struggle: two American boys shot while dirt-biking just across the border in Mexico and an entire village of compesinos—men, women, and children—found slaughtered in a collapsed tunnel. Viewers suspect how the two sets of murders are related almost before the protagonists but suffice it to say that the villagers were recruited to clean up a midnight spill of deadly methyl dioxide at the maquiladora, whose poisonous effects on them make them dangerous witnesses to the company’s reputation.

Jeff Bridges’ character does have some allies—an unbent cop who is nonetheless suspicious of gringo do-gooders, a local saintly priest, and an American bureaucrat Bridges would have had a romance with if this weren’t such a depressing film.

One wants not to be depressed in the end despite the number of deaths of innocent people including our heroes and the arrest of a really bent cop, but the web of shifting allegiances among the tough guys in this community, including even a mythical drug lord who is supposedly responsible for all bad things happening but who doesn’t really exist, makes the film’s coda especially difficult to take.

Nonetheless in the cinema of globalization this film should occupy a special but difficult place. The workers at the factory as well as the villagers epitomize the global labor force we now call the precariat, using the term popularized by British economist and writer Guy Standing, made up of temp workers seasonal workers, service industry workers, day laborers, immigrant and migrant workers, convict labor, the unorganized, the unemployed, the undocumented, etc.

That this labor force is global and threatened in even First World countries is the subject of what may be the only current play specifically named for the phenomenon—Chris Dunkley’s The Precariat (2013), performed in London. Macdonald workers as well the neighborhood drug sales force are all at risk in this drama of a dysfunctional working-class family that can only make ends meet by selling drugs or stealing.

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