'The Hand That Feeds': DOC NYC Review

The Hand That Feeds Still - H 2014
Courtesy of The Hand That Feeds

The Hand That Feeds Still - H 2014

Puts a very human face on a problem all too commonly ignored

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick's documentary chronicles the efforts of undocumented workers at an Upper East Side cafe as they try to achieve higher wages and better working conditions

The plight of undocumented immigrant workers fighting for fair wages and improved work conditions is movingly depicted in Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick's documentary made all the more timely by the current debates over increasing the minimum wage. Chronicling a strike undertaken in 2012 by the workers of a NYC Upper East Side deli, The Hand That Feeds is an impassioned socially themed documentary that may even succeed in swaying a few hearts and minds. The film recently screened at DOC NYC is scheduled for a theatrical release this spring.

The filmmakers got lucky in having a likeable, camera-friendly personality at the forefront of the struggle. He's Mahoma Lopez, a sandwich maker at the restaurant cafe catering to upscale Manhattanites. Fed up with the low wages and poor working conditions at the establishment — early in the film we see one employee displaying a $290 paycheck for his 60 hour workweek — Lopez decided to lead his fellow employees in a fight against management, asking for little more than minimum wage, overtime pay and safe working conditions.

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Needless to say, it was not an easy battle. Picketing outside the restaurant, they received both encouragement and derision from passersby, the latter illustrated when one person is heard shouting "Get a job, you commie scum." They never received a response to their complaint from the New York State Department of Labor, and the big unions turned them away because their shop was too small. They eventually went to the National Labor Relations Board and voted to form their own independent union; ironically, the voting took place in the same building housing the agency handling immigration enforcement. A further blow came when one of the workers' leaders abandoned the cause after receiving a financial settlement from the cafe's owners.

They eventually reached out to the then burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, with many of the young activists enthusiastically joining their ranks. It all thankfully results — spoiler alert — in a happy ending that is as rousing as it is seemingly implausible.

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Infused with welcome doses of humor — handing out free food on the street, one of the strikers comments, "If bagels don't make us popular on the Upper East Side, nothing will" — the film provides a vivid reminder that even undocumented workers deserve fair compensation from their employers. Along with such recent similarly themed documentaries as Food Chains, about the struggles of migrant tomato pickers in Florida, it puts a much needed spotlight on this important issue.

Production: Jubilee Films
Directors/screenwriters/producers: Rachel Lears, Robin Blotnick
Executive producer: Alex Rivera
Director of photography: Rachel Lears
Editors: Robin Blotnick, David Meneses
Composer: Ryan Blotnick

No rating, 88 min.