Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Emil Chiaberi's MURDER BY PROXY looks at group killings in the workplace and school...

... and then connects the dots. It's the connection that makes this movie so fascinating and well worth one's time. Beginning with a look at the United States Postal Service, Russian-born first-time filmmaker Emil Chiaberi probes the condition known as "going postal" and, more important, the particular kind of workplace that spawned the phrase and why. Turns out, according to his new documentary MURDER BY PROXY, that at the bottom of many, maybe the majority, of cases of workplace violence is a condition much in the news these days -- but oddly sequestered as though it existed in only the school environment: bullying.

Bullying does not necessarily end with one's school days, though as adults in an environment with some choices, we can more often avoid it. The USPS, it turns out, was not and is not -- particularly from the time in which the postal service turned from a government agency into a wholly-owned government business -- a place safe from bullying. According to the several USPS employees present and former that Mr. Chiaberi (shown at right, who both wrote and directed the film) has brought together, it is rather the perfect place to raise this "art" to a nasty, full-time occupation.

One of the heroes of the documentary, probably the most heroic, is postal worker Charlie Withers (above, testifying), who tells a good deal of the story here. Once the USPS went full-throttle business, a combo of social Darwinism and roughshod Capitalism was the order of the day. And as usually happens, the people holding most of the power use that power badly. "They never stopped being on his back," one woman explains about how the men in charge treated the first of workplace killers whom we meet.

Of the second "gone postal" worker we hear about, Thomas McIlvane (who killed several people in Royal Oak, Michigan, before turning his gun on himself), one of his co-workers tells us "There was an overwhelming feeling of relief that those people (the murdered ones) were gone. I understand why he did it." This is very strong stuff.

It seems that those same bosses had done similar damage in the state of Indiana (without this type of repercussion) before coming to Michigan, where they did it all again. Their message was clear, notes a worker: "If we can do this to McIlvane, we can do it to any of you." Well, they did.  And then, so did he.

Postal worker Withers (center, above), whose presence and gentle demeanor helps hold the film together, is at his most dear as he speaks about his family and daughter. But it is also he who turns the workers' grievances into a petition and tries to get his day in court. Not surprisingly, the union turns a blind eye to his and the workers' entreaties. ("It seemed like they just wanted this whole thing to go away.") So he, along with some others, tries to get the state of Washington's legislature to turn this into a workers' protection law. We follow their efforts as the movie progresses.

A combination of re-enactment, stock footage, newscasts (below) and some very unsettling film from the massacres (above and further above and below), the documentary also uses some funny, clever propaganda films of past times for humor and ironic effect -- as well as scenes from mainstream movies that make their point (two photos down).

The movie may jump around a lot but it never goes far afield from its theme. And when Chiaberi begins connecting what has happened across America over the past few decades -- the cruelty toward workers that has long been a part of the our system but that has increased since the 1970s; Ronald Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controllers' strike that has led to the sickness-unto-death of our unions; how the scale of CEO pay to workers' pay has risen from 35 to 1 up to 425 to 1; religion's role in all of this and so much more -- the movie really takes off. And though the documentary does not mention this, our Supreme Court's Citizens United decision would seem to be the very apotheosis of this trend.

You will realize how much has gone on that is connected to workplace violence in which the media, perhaps unwitting pawns of the powers-that-be, has treated each incident (which have grown enormously since the 1980s) as an event, something to blame on the "crazy shooter," rather than addressing the same problems that lie behind almost each one. How can the aggression of the bosses toward the workers not find some release? It does, finally, in aggression by the workers -- not only in multiple killings, but in various forms of sabotage, as well.

Accountability -- and the halting of abusive management -- would seem to be the key to progress. But the bullying continues, everywhere, and there is little indication of a move in a better direction. Until there is, I would wager, for all the supposed drop in individual crime across the country, we'll see a continued rise in workplace/school violence. Next time you read of another incident, do a little legwork and find out what lay behind the violence.

Murder by Proxy (from RF Releasing, 75 minutes) is being screened now in cities around the country, beginning at the scene of one of the crimes, Royal Oak, Michigan, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre. Unfortunately that screening occurred yesterday only, and I apologize for not getting this post up sooner.  The film will next be seen in Washington DC on Tuesday, March 20, at the Landmark E Street Cinema, and then in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Tuesday, March 27.  Click here then scroll down to check for further screenings or to purchase the DVD.

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