Brazilian documentary asks: do we live for work or work for life?

BERLIN (Reuters) - High in the hills of Brazil’s remote northeast, the town of Toritama echoes with the sound of sewing machines: in the self-proclaimed capital of jeans, people work all hours of the day to produce denim trousers.

That piqued director Marcelo Gomes’s interest when he visited. From his childhood he remembered a sleepy town where you could hear a pin drop, not the bustling hive of cottage industries that the 40,000-strong township is today.

In his Berlinale documentary, Gomes brings an anthropological eye to bear on the way in which the townsfolk work, asking whether they work for money or for the pleasure of it.

“When I got there, I said ‘Oh my God! This looks like England during the Industrial Revolution!’” Gomes told Reuters. But the town’s inhabitants are relentlessly cheerful in the film as they thread zippers or line hundreds of pockets a day.

Successive Brazilian governments have weakened laws protecting workers from exploitation, in effect forcing many to work longer hours for less money. But Toritama’s tailors are seemingly untroubled since they work for themselves.

“They had their own factories: they were the owners and the workers,” Gomes said. “So I think this is the new style of liberalism: you can do more and you can consume more.”

In the film, seamstresses cheerfully recite the exact sum in cents they will earn for each component they make.

But Gomes, who narrates the film, is unable to fully conceal his scepticism, asking if these industrious workers even have the time to ask if they are happy.

“You spend like 15, 16 hours working. What about your life? What about your kids? All the time I was asking them, but they were so happy because they were the owners,” said Gomes. “Is greed good?”

A reminder of the modesty of the living they earn comes at the end of the film, when carnival comes.

Families sell all their possessions - fridges, sewing machines - to earn the price of a holiday on the beach. For eight days, the town is empty - just as Gomes remembered it being as a child.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Gareth Jones