Constructing Inequality

Two new films – 'Atlantics' and 'Workforce' – explore the huge gulf between the luxury properties of the super-rich, and the conditions of the workers who build them.

Property is one of the starkest signifiers of global inequality. Since the financial crash in 2008, cities have become more unaffordable each year, and the super wealthy have seen investments in property as some of the safest places to store their money. At the same, social housing has become ever more scarce. Two new films, one made in Senegal, the other in Mexico, explore the consequences for the people who actually construct the new buildings that incarnate these inequalities. 

Atlantics, the first feature by Mati Diop, explores the lives of women connected to construction workers in Dakar, Senegal. They are building a monolithic, futuristic skyscraper, which appears in the film as a computerised image superimposed onto the horizon seen from the shanty towns inhabited by its workers. The workers themselves leave Dakar towards the beginning of the film, as economic migrants to Spain, and their boat is engulfed by waves – all of this is offscreen, with the viewer learning of it through the perspectives of those family members and lovers who have been left behind, hearing of their loved ones’ fates only through word of mouth. 

Meanwhile, in Workforce, the debut feature by Mexico’s David Zonana, we follow Francisco (Luis Alberti), a construction worker on a modernist mansion in Mexico City, whilst he and his coworkers live in dilapidated shacks, leaking in the rain. Francisco is galvanised to take action when his brother dies on the construction site, in the opening scene of the film, and his family are given no compensation or support. Taking power into his own hands, Francisco leads the rest of the workers to occupy the house, and form their own miniature society within it. In an interview with Variety, Zonana pointed out that ‘precarious working conditions happen all around Mexico and third world countries, where law is subjective and can be bended, via corruption, to the benefit of a few’. 

Both Workforce and Atlantics are fables of precarious working conditions, in which the living situations of workers are cast in stark contrast to those of the wealthy who are exploiting them. Both are also tales of class war, in which the working class rise to take back what they are owed for their labour. During the occupation in Workforce, the workers and their families begin living under the roof of their contractor’s abandoned mansion. In doing so they reclaim domestic space, built with their own hands, in an act of class rebellion. Notably, the struggle is not simply experienced by the labourers that are being exploited, but by their families and loved ones living around them. The moment of galvanisation that sparks Francisco’s rebellion is not his own lack of pay, but instead the brutal treatment of his brother’s wife, left widowed and financially destitute in the midst of pregnancy.

This focus on the human price of capital’s exploitation is mirrored in Atlantics. After the men disappear to Spain in hope of work and economic prosperity, the women become inhabited by their voices and spirits in the middle of the night. This leads them to track down the wealthy owner of the skyscraper, Mr Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene) to demand renumeration for their husbands, lovers, and brothers’ unpaid labour. On finally receiving this money, the women then force Mr Ndiaye to dig a grave, telling hims that ‘every time you look at the top of the tower’ this ‘real work’ will make him ‘remember [the men’s] unburied bodies’. This is an extremely powerful image, texturally contrasting raw earth with the shiny, gleaming tower that looms over Atlantics’ Dakar. By inhabiting these women with the voices of lost physical labourers, Diop shows physical and emotional labour as interchangeable. By doing so, the director calls to attention the place of caring relationships in the structure of capitalism. As Evelyn Nakano Glenn writes, ‘caring is devalued, invisible, underpaid, and penalized, it is relegated to those who lack economic, political, and social power and status’.

A key difference between these films is that of the representation of labour itself in each of them. Workforce shows the real manual labour of the construction workers, and is in fact cast largely of non-actors, or as the Safdie brothers prefer – ‘first time actors’. Many of these actors are manual labourers, grounding the film, and giving it a naturalistic identity. The characters in this film have a very close relationship with the fruits of their labour, with it eventually becoming their own reality. Throughout this process, the characters are attempting to conquer the alienation they might feel from their product. Whilst the same process is explored in Atlantics, we never actually see the construction workers building the skyscraper, and only ever see it on a distant horizon as a CGI projection. Diop’s is a more dreamlike and metaphorical exploration of labour relationships, with the film’s main characters being eerily awoken at night. Atlantics might be seen as a fairytale-like warning against exploitation. 

One of the biggest films of the last year was Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, a tale of class war illustrated by living conditions within the same town. After becoming the first non-English language film to with the Oscar for Best Picture, Joon-Ho was quoted as saying ‘we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism’. Parasite, Workforce and Atlantics are films made in three different continents in the same year, and all explore the same process of class warfare through property and building. They speak to a global crisis of inequality.