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The success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest-grossing documentary in history, has ushered in a burst of feature-length political offerings in the same field. The list's newest addition is a low-budget take on outsourcing by freelance TV producer Greg Spotts, 36, who hit the road with a cheap video camera and $50,000 in savings, after realizing how many of his pals were out of work. His quest? To see what happens to U.S. citizens when their jobs migrate overseas.
His film, American Jobs, premieres Sept. 9 in the decimated factory town of Kannapolis, North Carolina -- his first stop back in February -- followed by screenings nationwide. The movie, available on DVD for $11.95, draws on workers' voices from 19 cities where people have lost their jobs to outsourcing. The film's unemployed subjects run the gamut, Spotts says, from pickup-truck-driving factory workers in North Carolina to latte drinking, BMW-driving software programmers in Seattle.
BusinessWeek's Lauren Gard recently sat down with Spotts in New York to discuss the film, which the first-time director completed in just six months. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
A: In April, 2003, I realized that a lot of my friends were out of work, and I started reading up on the issue of joblessness in America. It soon mushroomed into a huge project -- in six months, I gathered more than 1,000 newspaper articles about unemployment and outsourcing on the hard drive of my computer. I was struck by the absence of dialogue on trade and how it might affect the middle class. So I decided that the only way to understand it was to go out and talk to the people who were living it.
Q: Did Michael Moore's films influence your approach?
A: Moore's films were meaningful to me long before I thought of making a movie, but I didn't want to play an intense role like Michael Moore does in his films. I aimed to supply the context rather than make a polemic out if it. I enjoyed the way Moore skillfully layers entertainment and irony on top of information. But I just couldn't find a way to do that -- there's nothing funny about this topic.
Q: You make a point of saying that your film is nonpartisan, but it opposes outsourcing. Some people might make the leap that it's therefore anti-Republican -- and anti-Bush. How have you handled this?
A: Some of the people I met asked right away, "Is this connected to the Kerry campaign?" I said no, that it was a nonpartisan film, and they were eager to be interviewed. They just didn't want it to be used for a narrow political purpose. I don't criticize the Bush Administration in this film. There has really been a policy consensus on free trade from Reagan through Bush. It was Clinton who signed NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and 700,000 textile jobs have been lost in the U.S. since then.
I do have very passionate views on outsourcing, but there's a difference between being a free-trade skeptic and being anti-Bush. The film is topical, but it's not political in the sense of the Democratic-Republican horserace. I don't want it to be owned by the Democratic Party or a candidate.
Q: Why didn't you interview pro-outsourcing factions?
A: I felt that the other side has been very well articulated, so I focused instead on the human-interest aspect. I did have many different views on NAFTA in the film. I tried to investigate the truth of the dominant things people are saying in supporting free trade.
Q: How do you feel about becoming a kind of spokesperson on this issue merely because you've made a film about it?
A: Nine months ago my expertise was making athletes and musicians look cool on TV. [Spotts formerly produced live coverage of Los Angeles Galaxy pro soccer games and MTV specials.] I'm trying to tread carefully on becoming a standard-bearer on this issue. Yet we do need standard-bearers.
Outsourcing is one of the few issues in this country where there has been a dominant point of view, and the alternative point of view hasn't been articulated. Those who have questioned our trade policies are ridiculed as being backward and ignorant.
Q: What kind of impact do you think outsourcing to other countries will have on the U.S. in the next 10 years?
A: If we stay on the same course we've been on since Reagan, we'll start to see a significant erosion of the middle class, a lot of people whose talents are underutilized or unutilized. What if, as India and China become more like the U.S., the U.S. becomes more like India and China? We might start seeing more and more people working for subsistence rather than to achieve the American dream of affluence. The American dream might become more of a myth than an accessible reality.
Q: What do you think of recent studies indicating that outsourcing is responsible for only a minute fraction of job loss? According to a June U.S. Labor Dept. report, less than 2% of job loss in the nonfarm private sector was due to outsourcing.
A: They're lies. Those studies are completely funded by tech companies. How can companies say there's a shortage of skilled labor in the U.S. and outsource work when the unemployment rate among tech workers here is growing to record highs? As for the Labor Dept., it's outmoded and not making a real effort to quantify outsourcing. There are no official figures on job loss due to white-collar tech outsourcing because it's not in their interest to keep track.
Q: You're not going the usual route of submitting the film to festivals or selling it to a network or studio. Who's your audience?
A: I hope it's going to have a wide audience that approaches it as information rather than entertainment. They won't be choosing between my DVD or The Lion King. I really wanted to reach people through a different sector.