Part I: NORMA RAE x EUROPA '51: Bioethics & Workers Unions

Norma Rae is a 1979 film, based on the life of the late, legendary, textile workers’ union organizer, Crystal Lee Sutton. In the title role, Sally Field honors the formidable works of the film’s director Martin Ritt, and the screenwriting spouses Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch. The re-viewing of  Norma Rae, in a bioethical context, is prompted by the worker health confounding plethora of  anti-union legislation plaguing several of the poorest states of the USA. An eighteen year old, entering the work force this year, has probably never seen the film Norma Rae. That is a travesty. 

The character Norma Rae was a textiles factory worker in North Carolina. It was the 1970s,  when the textiles industry in the USA employed nearly 40% of the  nation’s workforce, and was largely not unionized. The same industry is now less than 2% of the work force but is experiencing a resurgence in the past few years, as work is returning from the instability of other nations. 

Norma, was poor, white, widowed and a mother of three. The factory town in North Carolina where she lived was rife with poverty, racism, sexism and classism.  She worked in the town company factory, as her parents had before her, and still did. The heft of this story and performances, taking this woman from unconscious to universal conscience remains impressive. Norma Rae stands on the shoulders of  Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ascribes: 

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, just and favorable work conditions,  protection against unemployment (and among other things), the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their own interests. Like much of the UDHR, Article 23, sprang from unprecedented violations of humanity wrought by the expansion of technology associated with the atrocities of both WWI and WWII. This is how Norma Rae meets bioethics. 

The science of public health shows, from 2012-2013, alarming trends of disparity in states where the bargaining capacity of unions, and union organizing, has been diminished by recent legislation. In those states, workers wages are lower; there are lower amounts of health insurance coverage needed for individuals age and life stage; non-union workers pay a larger share of their health insurance premiums; poverty rates are higher in both adults and children; infant mortality is higher and; workplace fatalities are a startling 54% higher. 

Norma Rae’s transcendence to consciousness, prompting her union organizing, visually parallels the ascension of the main character in Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51, Irene Knox.  Irene (Ingrid Bergman) is the wife of a wealthy American industrialist residing in post WWII  Rome. After her child dies, she searches for and attains a sensibility close to that of St. Francis of Asissi. Oddly, St. Francis is considered the earliest documented source of Bioethics. Imagery of St. Francis is iconic for  empathy in Europa ’51 — flocks of children and families like birds, frequently surround Irene, as she shifts her world perspective to embrace them.


Norma Rae (35 mm) directed by Martin Ritt, USA 20th Century Fox. 1979 (110 min)

Europa ’51 (35 mm) directed by Roberto Rossellini, Italy, I.F.E. Releasing Corporation 1952 (113 mins)


Crystal Sutton Collection http://www.crystalleesutton.com/about.html Accessed September 9, 2015

Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect.http://www.aflcio.org/content/download/126621/3464561/DOTJ2014.pdf  Accessed September 14, 2015

Ricardo AndrĂ©s Roa-Castellanos, Bioethical common factors amidst Krause masonry and Saint Francis of Assisi systems of thought appeal to respectful dialogue, nature and understanding: the Jahr’s dialogue beyond the age of "enlightment" and the metadisciplinary "dark" ages. http://hrcak.srce.hr/74189 Accessed September 14, 2015.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ accessed August 31, 2015.

Part II: NORMA RAE x EUROPA '51: Bioethics, Dual Loyalties & Crystal Lee Sutton

In Norma Rae, and Europa 51 the leading women are seen in factories which are loud, mechanical, inhuman. Focus on the grinding gears seems to imitate the work of their minds. Workers visually blend with the machines. Both the lead characters interact with the roughness of the lives around them. The camera captures faces and expressions of  the destitute and poor of spirit. Director Ritt’s homage to Rossellini’s neorealism is complete. There is sickness and death; stroke, deafness, infection, suicide, murder, broken limbs. Only the women leads and their compadres, male non-lover partners, find these occurrences anathema.  

Irene Knox is an outsider looking in on a world to which she is compelled to extend compassion. Norma Rae is born from the roughest circumstances, which she struggles to change. It is through the wonders of human consciousness that Norma Rae, jumps from pure survival to a desire for enlightenment. The leap is portrayed with the delicacy of a metaphysical love affair and a Dylan Thomas poem. Remarkably, these two women with beginnings so different end up in the same place. 

Bioethical conflict arises in circumstances where there are competing goods. When good and bad are clear, that is not a conflict. The system of health care as portrayed in both films illustrate this tension. In the textile factory the doctor  is paid by the factory owners, implicitly required to maintain the status quo despite repeated instances of occupational disease and health stresses. Arguably, the doctor tries to maintain  individual factory workers incomes, for as long as those individuals can stand to work.  

In the run of the day, there is a duality of obligation to both employer and patient in the tasks of public health. When you ask a  tired, starving man if he  would rather eat or sleep, you see the  bioethical conflict occupational health, workman’s compensation, social security, and corporation doctors deal with, or ignore, daily.

Europa 51’s doctors obscure facts repeatedly. The cause of death of Irene’s son is withheld from her. When a prostitute is ill, and despised by neighbors in a slum, Irene summons a doctor. Without explanation  the doctor declares “there is nothing to be done.” Then, he abandons Irene to the task of doing that ‘nothing.’

Irene’s desire to make change for individuals around her abounds.  She stands in, as a worker on a factory shift, for a woman with several children and a date. Irene is told her behavior is dangerous to her own well being, proven by her being locked into an asylum. Norma Rae was also locked away, but in jail.  Both women did plenty of good before the jailers threw away the keys. These films make us ask,”For whom do these doctors work?”  

Medicine failed not only  the character Irene Knox but, the real Norma Rae, Crystal Lee Sutton.  Crystal matriculated at  Alamance Community College in 1988.  She finished her working career as a certified nursing assistant.  Being among the medical profession did not save her.  Crystal died  on September 11, 2009, from a usually slow growing tumor of connective tissue surrounding the brain, a meningioma. The mass escaped appropriate followup because of insurance company protocols. She died in hospice at 68 years old. When asked by a reporter, how she would like to be remembered she said, 
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything… but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the USA and the world … (So) that my family and children, and children like mine, will have a fair share and equality."


Norma Rae (35 mm) directed by Martin Ritt, USA 20th Century Fox. 1979 (110 min)

Europa ’51 (35 mm) directed by Roberto Rossellini, Italy, I.F.E. Releasing Corporation 1952 (113 mins)


Crystal Sutton Collection http://www.crystalleesutton.com/about.html Accessed September 9, 2015

London, L. Dual loyalties and the ethical and human rights obligations of occupational health professionals. Am J Ind Med. 2005 Apr;47(4):322-32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15776476  Accessed September 18, 2015.

A SEPARATE WIND: Bioethics Forced Migration, Violence and Grief

A Separate Wind/ Viento Aparte opened the 7th annual Cine+Mas San Francisco Latino Film Festival. Director Alejandro Gerber Bicecci’s film though billed as a coming of age story, is also a miraculous buddy movie. The buddies? ... a brother and sister, fifteen and twelve. Together they traverse 7 of Mexico’s 31 states, by truck, car, bus and foot. Other than receiving the kindness of strangers, sometimes paying for it, the children are on their own. In this process they stare down anticipatory grief for a sick family member, and immediate grief for their country.

In writer-director Bicecci's  hands, states are not just geography but also “states of being.” This film is “the other side” of many stories. The children are relatively affluent and sheltered, having grown up in Mexico City. Their mother’s Indio-like spirit is counterbalanced by their father's chilly  pragmatic style. Weaving between these parental opposites the waifs manage to wade through life’s muck, approximating a straight line to their destination. 

This is a story as much about truth and reconciliation as it is about violence and terror. Bicecci frames most shots from the viewpoint of one or the other of the children, or of their memories. Once you learn this distinctive film language you feel comfort in the directors hands. Settings and characters feature Indio, Spanish, African and ancient Mesoamerican influences in a thoroughly modern context, of language and music.The vast diversity of Mexican identities depicted defies the notion of one linear history of its people. 

For all its beauty, A Separate Wind is not a fairytale. But it does  recognize that even in hideously violent circumstances gentleness can  still be found. Much of this film turns on the threat of violence insidiously invading the young travelers, though it never does. If the children were caught in that depravity, then the story would be about those incidences. Bicecci says, "Then the story would no longer be about siblings emerging understanding of their own relationship, to one another, and their country.

The situational violence, the director tells his audience, parallels what he witnessed scouting the film's locations, leading  him to make rewrites. With those rewrites violence itself becomes a character.  However, the perpetrators of the violence are never shown on screen so denied that power. Instead the film craft directs the siblings, and the viewers to identify with the victims, the most vulnerable-- a journalist witness, peasants with a brutal masters, a prostitute whose lively hood depends on her John.

A Separate Wind explains why its protagonists and thousands of other children walk across continents seeking not paradise, but at least a less brutal world.

A Separate Wind/Viento Aparte will be screened again 9/26/2015
tickets for this film and others at  http://www.sflatinofilmfestival.com/tickets/
Runs annually and this year 9/18/2015 -10/3/2015

 A Separate Wind/ Viento Aparte directed by Alejandro Gerber Bicecci (2014)
Mexico, Spanish/ English subtitles

Why are so many children trying to cross the US border http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-28203923


A MIGHTY HEART: Bioethics and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The power of the first viewing of A Mighty Heart is a plot which rips Daniel Perlman from his pregnant wife and soon to be born son. This is set amid the chaos of Pakistan, a country simultaneously ancient and at 55 years post colonial rule, younger than wines in a good cellar. The second viewing, through excellent film craft, shows A Mighty Heart tells a very different and peaceful story. It is the story of a multiracial, multicultural, feminist, who loses her husband, yet her spirit refuses to capitulate to the tactics of terror. 

A Mighty Heart is directed by Michael Winterbottom. The screenplay is written by John Orloff. The film is an adaptation of the memoir written by  journalist Mariane Pearl who is played by Angelina Jolie.  Mariane is the widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who in 2002, was assassinated in Pakistan. Dan Futterman portrays Daniel Pearl.

Since 1992, over 1000 journalists have been documented to be  killed in the line of their duty, The conviction for these crimes around the world is around ten percent. Those responsible for the killings have enjoyed relative impunity for their actions. It is journalist James Foley, murdered in August 2015 in Syria, along with others, which prompts this second look at A  Mighty Heart. Jim, like Pearl was beheaded by fascists. The word fascist is chosen intentionally, avoiding the various euphemisms often applied to such murderers. 

The visuals of A Mighty Heart, beat a rhythm of an environment wrought with the oppression of masses of people, crammed into tight spaces. Medical researchers working with rats know that if you put too many in a cage, they will turn on one another.  As Marianne Pearl points out, she lost her journalist expatriate husband, but ten Pakistanis were also killed by extremist that same year. The visuals of poverty, the streets of Islamabad and Karachi, juxtaposed with privilege, the homes and servants of journalists, expatriates and wealthier Pakistani citizens, delicately illustrate fascist fundamentalism coming to have such a foothold. It’s an old story. Destitute people cling to ideologies which replace the void left by  their dignity. 

Why is this a bioethical issue? Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation.” The hierarchy says that  the essentials of physiology, safety, and love and belonging are prerequisite to esteem and self actualization. Health and welfare of individuals through the beneficent use of health sciences may be requisite in exercising ones enlightened self interest. However beneficence and autonomy are not sufficient to provide equal distribution of burdens and benefits, that is, justice in extraordinary circumstances of injustice. Building requires blueprints. In 1948, five years after Maslow’s ‘A theory of Human Motivation,’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)  was ratified by the newly minted United Nations.The UDHR operationalized Maslow’s hierarchy in service of building more just societies. Freedom of the press,and more, is addressed in Article 19 of the UDHR:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In combination with a campaign to stop impunity for those murdering journalists there are calls for the international courts to consider the murder of journalist as crimes against humanity, A Mighty Heart  is worth second look as it struggles to speak truth to article 19 of the declaration of human rights.

A Mighty Heart (35mm) directed by Michael Winterbottom USA Paramount Vantage.
2007(108 min) 

Pearl, Mariane (2003). A Mighty Heart. with Sarah Crichton. New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 978-0-7432-4442-8.

For More Information see: 
The International Federation of Journalists http://www.ifj.org/campaigns/end-impunity/ accessed August 31, 2015

United Nations Press Freedom Day 2015 http://webtv.un.org/search/world-press-freedom-day-side-event/4224398140001?term=world+press+freedom+day  accessed August 31, 2015 accessed

National Writers Union Co-Sponsors Press Freedom Day at the United Nations https://nwu.org/nwu-co-sponsors-world-press-freedom-event-at-the-united-nations/

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ accessed August 31, 2015.