Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags
It has become cliche to tell the story of an American going from rags to riches based on their own impassioned journey using a unique and personal form of ingenuity and hard work, but we may be on the path toward establishing a new and unfortunate conventional wisdom that says it is just as common to go from rags to riches and then back to rags once again. It is this new economic reality that Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags explores in ways that are both haunting and saddening. This bracing documentary speaks through the experiences of those in the midst of their own struggles. It asks if the American consumer is willing to continue the "race to the bottom" for the sake of bottomed-out bargains or if they are going to make their choices in the marketplace a powerful tool in the struggle for labor rights around the globe.
Marc Levin's masterful chronicling of the decline of the garment industry in New York City has several stories of challenges and progress that come full circle. One example is the documentary's grave portrayal of the consequences of employee exploitation. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1921—in which hundreds of lives were lost after managers locked their employees in a crowded, unsafe high-rise—was repeated at the end of the century in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The sight of another company repeating the same senseless mistake with the same unnecessary and atrocious loss of life leaves the viewer with a conundrum of cynical proportions: with the decline of unions and authoritative regulatory structures to check global corporate power, what is the future of those that toil in a non-service industry? This is one of the most powerful aspects of the documentary because, through these stories, we witness the fact that while time may move inexorably forward in industry where people may, with time and due diligence, find fortune that lifts them out of poverty, the mainstream middle now find that time and due diligence are simply not enough to sustain wealth.
This acute sense of insecurity is not simply a long-building trend particular to the garment industry; it can also be found amongst manufacturing workers in America's Rust Belt, small farmers threatened by agribusiness, and factory workers in the South. They are the face of a middle class that is squeezed tighter and tighter by the year. Levin successfully pulls out of many stories a common thread that touches on how this singular struggling industry is emblematic of many sectors of the American economy.