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SHEFFIELD DOC FEST 2021

Review: Factory to the Workers

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- Once an inspiring example of workers rallying against ruthless owners, the story of Croatian factory ITAS has become a bitter reminder of the unfair market game in Srdjan Kovačević's documentary

Review: Factory to the Workers

ITAS, a machine-tool factory in the Croatian city of Ivanec, first came into the media spotlight in 2005. The plant became one of the many victims of the unregulated privatisation that successive Croatian governments pushed in order to bring in foreign investment. Furious at their new owners, the workers, led by the charismatic Dragutin Varga, literally threw them out and took over the place, making it the only successful example of such a factory occupation in Europe. Basing their new model on self-management and with every worker becoming a shareholder, it felt almost like a utopia coming true.

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Croatian director Srdjan Kovačević had been hoping to make a documentary on this supposed workers' paradise. But what he encountered resulted in a very different film, Factory to the Workers [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which has world-premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Tellingly, the film opens with a shot of the portrait of former Yugoslav President Tito, hanging on the factory wall. Renounced as a remnant of a communist past in the new state of Croatia, he is still a model for romantic left-wingers and labour activists alike. Kovačević plunges us directly into the tumultuous present of ITAS, which is now headed by executive director Božo Dragoslavić, while the chain-smoking Varga (actually, everybody in the factory seems to be smoking, all the time) still remains the workers' leader.

The situation seems dire for the factory, whose main buyers are big companies in Germany and Russia: salaries are late and often reduced, and the workers, especially the young ones, are less interested in company shares than in existential security. The last new machine was bought ten years ago, the loans and debts are piling up, and dissatisfaction with Dragoslavić is increasing. Young workers tend to leave as soon as they get a better offer.

Meetings of the collective are frequent, and Varga or Dragoslavić will stand in front of the microphone and talk to the people, who murmur back in disagreement. The workers bicker among themselves as well, and there is no assistance forthcoming from the state or European support funds. It appears that the worst kind of capitalism has won, as the market is clearly not equally free to all players.

The whole film takes place inside the factory, its halls full of noisy machines that the protagonists often have to shout over in order to make themselves heard. There is a large mural covering one wall, proclaiming “FACTORY TO THE WORKERS!”, which, as the film progresses, strikes us as increasingly ironic, in contrast to the “Where are the salaries?!”, often scribbled on announcements on the bulletin board, or even flashing up as a screensaver on a computer monitor.

The two main characters, Dragoslavić and Varga, are nervous throughout, the former getting increasingly bitter and defensive in the run-up to a confidence vote from the board, and the latter still fighting tooth and nail not to be defeated in the war he has been waging for almost 20 years.

The documentary is a bumpy, complicated watch, as the viewer struggles to understand the exact reasons why ITAS is doing so poorly. Kovačević provides very little exposition, limiting his approach to observation and a couple of interviews, out of which we get bits and pieces but never a full explanation. The viewer gets a general idea of what is driving the deterioration of the country's economy and can easily relate to the workers' plight. Instead of an expected beacon of hope, Factory to the Workers is a bitter reminder that a fair, humane business model just cannot compete on this uneven playing field. A difficult, but important film.

Factory to the Workers was produced by Zagreb-based FadeIn.

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