Wastebasket Warriors

Activists rally around a film about a janitorial uprising.

Glasgow-born screenwriter Paul Laverty is just back from Scotland, where he wrapped his fourth film in six years with independent social realist director Ken Loach.

Laverty's pleased to be out of the weather. "It rained all day, every day. This is a welcome change."

He's in Tucson for the time being with his Spanish-born wife, actor and filmmaker Icíar Bollaín, who's a visiting professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the UA.

The couple's sojourn far from their home in Spain is our gain, thanks to Yuri Makino, who runs the UA Media Arts Visiting Filmmakers Program. Friday night, Laverty joins a panel of local activists at a free showing of his third collaboration with Loach, Bread and Roses, at the Social Science auditorium on campus. (The other two films they've made together are Carla's Song, 1996, and My Name is Joe, 1998. Their current project, Sixteen Candles, is about adolescents in Glasgow.)

It's a second chance for Tucson: Bread and Roses played only briefly at the Loft in mid-August.

"I want people to see it," says, Laverty. "Bread and Roses has now been shown all over the world. It played Hong Kong, you know."

With Bread and Roses, Laverty and Loach consciously further the work begun by the largely illegal, mostly Spanish-speaking janitors of L.A., who as recently as 1999 made $5.75 an hour (no benefits) for cleaning high-rent office buildings in a city that's a byword for uncountable wealth.

(Not that we Arizonans shouldn't feel superior to the SoCal power structure. Underpaid immigrants don't clean our toilets or raise our babies. No sir.)

The Justice for Janitors campaign began in the late '80s in Century City--home to studios, agents and PR agencies--and continued until April of last year, when, under massive public pressure, Los Angeles County signed a master contract for a livable wage and benefits.

In their long struggle to become visible, the L.A. janitors kept turning the city's view of itself inside out. The film revels in the smarts, showbiz panache and daring of the largely illegal, mostly Spanish-speaking night workers. They invaded A-list parties to vacuum, sang lullabies outside the homes of executives who just said "no" to health coverage and held their own version of the Oscars featuring awards like "Worst Cleaning Job for a Major Studio by a Non-Union Crew."

The public moment that spurred the movement, however, wasn't amusing at all: In June of 1990, on the Avenue of the Stars, the LAPD beat protest marchers so badly that 60 people were hospitalized, one of them a woman who miscarried--and someone got it all on video. (Ten years to the day after the beatings, Loach and Laverty premiered their film at a theater in Century City for an audience of janitor-activists.)

The movement caught Laverty's attention in the mid-'90s when he was living in Spanish-speaking downtown L.A.

"The business blocks would empty out, and then, in the evening, the cleaners would come in. The uniforms are supposed to make people invisible--they do, in a way. But the hundreds of small, brown people who came pouring off the buses to clean the buildings downtown every night weren't faceless victims.

"I got to know some of my neighbors. These were smart people with dramatic, interesting lives--people who'd come a long way to work two, even three jobs to feed their kids. And then the kids would get into gangs because their parents were never home.

"And here these people are at night, occupying the same space that some of richest people in America occupy by day. Completely polarized populations inhabiting the same space at carefully separated times. I thought, this is really interesting.

"But of course a documentary of the movement--and we did use footage of some of the protests in the film--wouldn't have been nearly as true as a story about particular people. So I created Maya (Pilar Padilla) and Rosa (Elpidia Carillo) and Sam (Adrien Brody) and wove their stories into the larger events."

Word is, the film soars far beyond polemic, and the performances are something really special. Loach, an agile filmmaker who's more popular in Europe than in Britain or the U.S., was invited to bring the film to the Cannes and other Continental festivals, where it won a number of awards.

In the U.S., Bread and Roses has done well with the critics, who admired its nuanced, clear-eyed view of social action and its storytelling, which captures the danger and excitement of the times.

"Oh, yes, we've gotten some lovely reviews," says Laverty.

Roger Ebert, no less, gave the film 3 and a half stars, admitting he'd never thought about who emptied his wastebasket before seeing it. He particularly admired Carillo's performance as the older, skeptical sister: "It could not have been denied an Oscar--if the Academy voters in their well-cleaned offices ever saw movies like this."

You can see movies like this. So go do it.

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