March 31, 2005

Playback: David Lowe's 'Harvest of Shame'

David Lowe's 'Harvest of Shame.'

By Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini

In Harvest of Shame, the powerful television documentary that brought the plight of migrant workers to Americans' Thanksgiving tables in 1960, Edward R. Murrow smokes. He smokes incessantly. He smokes in awkward, stand-up shots, unashamed of his crooked teeth or stooped posture. 

The cigarette smoke, like the film's portentous narration, the heavy-handed use of the Aaron Copland score and the bulky equipment, all distance us as vérité-indoctrinated, MTV-consuming filmmakers. They can even cause us to feel smug in our "advances" in technique, technology and sensibility. But at its core, Harvest of Shame remains a potent indictment that used the then still early medium of television to effect political change.

We turned to Harvest of Shame while making our own documentary, Farmingville, which captures a quiet Long Island suburb as it erupts when Mexican immigrants—many illegal—move in to find work as day laborers. Despite the similar subject matter, our link to Harvest of Shame was more serendipitous than conscious. 

While in post-production, we remembered an article in The New York Times describing the new trend of affordable housing for migrant workers. The piece featured a potato farmer in Riverhead, Long Island, whose family farm had been included in Harvest of Shame

The coincidence that this monumental piece of television had landed within 50 miles of the town we were documenting was too tantalizing to pass up. So we booked one of the tiny screening rooms at the Donnell Library in New York City, waited for the librarian to thread the 16mm projector and watched as the painful story, told in the austere eloquence of black-and-white, unfolded before us. In the brilliant subterfuge of the film, we found affirmation of a core theme we wanted to portray in our own doc—collective responsibility. 

CBS strategically aired Harvest of Shame on Thanksgiving Day. In the closing shot, Murrow, now in a suit, with the full force of a studio set-up (and still with a cigarette in hand), reminds viewers that the meal they have just eaten came thanks to the deplorable plight of the people who had just visited their living rooms via the magic of television. 

Similarly in Farmingville we wanted to underscore that we all benefit from illegal immigrant labor. These workers touch and subsidize each and every part of our lives—from the food we serve on our tables, to the food we eat at restaurants; from the time they allow us to have with our families by cleaning our houses or mowing our lawns, to the homes they build that house us. 

While Murrow and producer David Lowe make no bones about advocating their position, we felt it necessary to take a more objective route. Perhaps that's another indirect and unintended legacy of Murrow's: Michael Moore notwithstanding, the sympathy of the American television viewing public can't be so easily swayed these days. On an issue as complex as illegal immigration, we felt all sides must be heard if a dialogue is to begin.

The road of objectivity was a difficult one to take, but imagining that it could lead to the same fundamental message as Murrow's—collective responsibility—made it an easier one to travel.

 

Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini joined forces to make the Sundance Award-winning Farmingville. Tambini's film credits include co-producer of the Oscar- nominated Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse; Sandoval is a lawyer-turned-filmmaker.

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