From its semi-humble beginnings 17 years ago as a weekend film festival focusing on labor-related movies, the DC LaborFest has grown, diversified and blossomed into a monthlong cultural event. The 2017 lineup, which kicks off Monday, includes 22 films, 17 labor tours, walks, bike rides, cultural tours and—new this year—a union beer and whiskey tasting, sponsored by Labor 411.
"It’s an interesting demographic," said Chris Garlock, the festival’s director and founder. "There are some folks who are really into music, some who are really into films and some folks who are really into soccer. I’m getting requests from people who want to do a union wine tasting, so I guess we’ll be talking about that for 2018. It’s kind of cool to find new and different audiences for different things."
With a few days to go before a month of events, kicked off with a May Day screening of the James Franco-directed film "In Dubious Battle," Labor 411 chatted with Garlock on all things DC LaborFest.
Q: Where did the idea for this film festival come from? How did it originate?
Chris Garlock: I’m from Rochester, New York, where my dad and I ran the Rochester Labor Film Series (which is now celebrating its 28th year). My dad brought [union leader] Tony Mazzocchi up to Rochester for a screening of "Silkwood," and Tony came back all excited. My dad told him, "Well, Chris works for the Metropolitan Washington [D.C.] Council. You should talk to him." Tony was a force of nature, so with his vision, organized by me and Katherine Isaac and the full support of Metropolitan Washington Council President Jos Williams, we were able to pull the first film fest together in just a few months.
Q: Can you talk about the growth of the festival over the 17 years of its existence?
CG: Oh my goodness, a couple of things. We have partnered up with American Film Institute from the beginning and it’s just grown and grown over the years. The main festival is at AFI, which has a beautiful three-screen theater in Silver Spring, and we’ve expanded, so we do a whole free film noon time series at the AFL-CIO on Fridays. At various times we’ve done screenings at different international unions. We co-hosted a Whistleblower Film Festival for a couple of years. There’s a DC Immigration Film Festival that we helped to start. It was a separate film festival for a few years, and we’re kind of absorbing it back in this year.
Q: One doesn’t typically find the breadth of offerings of DC LaborFest in a standard film festival. How did that variety develop for the DC LaborFest?
CG: About four years ago, we made the jump and we’ve never looked back. We went from having just a film festival to adding music events, theater, a labor soccer game, labor history walking tours, labor history biking tours, basically any sort of labor-ific cultural event that people could come up with and sounded like somebody might be interested in. We have had some great partners—including Labor 411, of course, and I have to mention American Income Life, which has been our prime sponsor from the beginning.
Q: What are some of the film highlights of this year’s lineup?
CG: The big one, of course, is the May 16 screening of "Matewan," and director John Sayles is going to be here. It’s the 30th anniversary of the film so we’re very excited about that, and he’s a personal hero of mine. We’re opening on May 1 with "In Dubious Battle," directed by James Franco, from a book by John Steinbeck, and that’s a book about California migrant workers that is very much in tune with all of the immigration demonstrations going on that day.
We have two films about [the anarchists] Sacco and Vanzetti and this is the 70th anniversary of their execution, so that’s very appropriate. This year, for the first time, we will be having labor tours of four different museums in town. It’s going to be a really great opportunity to see some really amazing art work or artifacts about work and workers. And then, of course, there’s our union beer and whiskey tasting with Labor 411. Those tickets are going like hot cakes.
Q: Now that the DC LaborFest is 17 years running, does the festival’s reputation open certain doors that might not have opened in early years?
CG: There are only a few dozen labor film festivals in the world, and we’re one of the largest and oldest. By virtue of our being in Washington, D.C., and our connection with the AFL-CIO and all the other unions, it definitely opens a lot of doors and I think people take it more seriously.
Q: How about your audience? Is it a mixture of union workers and film fans?
CG: Absolutely. I do mobilization and communication for the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, and my whole argument for why we should do the film festival and then expand it to the LaborFest was because it mobilizes and communicates. We do lots of rallies and picket lines on a weekly, if not daily, basis in town, but those tend to be more for people who are in the movement or sometimes for people who are just in a particular local. At a screening at AFI, you’ll look out at the audience and more than half the audience will be people who are there because they want to see the film. Film is a very accessible medium, so it brings in the general public. It brings in union members who might not be so involved, and it’s a real opportunity for folks to get together and socialize in a way that’s not just on the picket line or at a rally or at a union meeting.
Q: Can you recount some great events from past festivals?
CG: The first year, we showed "Live Nude Girls Unite" which is a great film about dancers at the Lusty Lady organizing. Again, that was a chance to reach a different kind of audience. We have given out our Labor Arts Award both to Jane Fonda—who came here for "9 to 5"—and Barbara Kopple, who has done a number of great labor films. Ramin Bahrani, who has become a really big filmmaker…we’ve shown almost all of his films here, and I remember when he was a young, aspiring filmmaker. For him to screen at DC LaborFest was a big deal at the time.
There are a lot of great films out there about work and workers, and we don’t just show the usual documentaries that people expect us to show. We have shown romantic comedies that have a labor angle, science fiction films, children’s films. We really want to be able to have a whole variety of stuff.
Q: Any last words?
CG: The labor film poster collection is in the AFL-CIO lobby now. It’s gorgeous and it’s free, and people can drop by and enjoy it anytime they want. The big poster out front is "Matewan."
For more information, visit dclabor.org/dc-laborfest.html.