A Native Son Returns to the 4th Annual Kent Film Festival
Ethan Mechare, an actor, writer and filmmaker who grew up in Falls Village, CT, where his mother is now the First Selectman, is returning home from California for the Kent Film Festival. His documentary, Work Harder (click on the title to see the trailer), which chronicles the lives of Acela and Allzon— two Hispanic women who are among the working poor trying to live on the minimum wage in southern California—will be shown on Sunday, March 29, at 2 PM.
How did you get the idea for Work Harder?
I read a book called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and I thought it was a poignant commentary on the state of how this country deals with poverty and creating a livable wage. In the book, Ehrenreich documents her struggle to live paycheck to paycheck in three different U.S. cities. What I didn’t like about the book was that it didn’t tell the story of the people who actually lived on minimum wage. Her book proved an important point but I wanted to go beyond that and take it to the next level so I decided to make a film about the women who really made ends meet on $6.75 an hour, and didn’t have the option to go back to a life as an upper middle class white woman.
How did you meet Acela and Allzon, the stars of your film? How did you gain their trust?
In the beginning I followed Ehrenreich’s template and got a job at a Los Angeles Kmart and filmed my own experience trying to live off minimum wage as a single white male. This footage didn’t make it into the film because I wanted the story to just be about Alizon and Acela but this is where I met Alizon. She worked in the cafe portion of Kmart and I would see her everyday on my break. We built a rapport and after about a month I asked her if she’d be willing to let me follow her around and tell me her story on film. I would never have been able to capture her story on film if I hadn’t been working at Kmart as well—I believe my working there was imperative to her opening up the way she did. I met Acela through a non-profit called the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. Acela was volunteering for them and she was my contact person to set me up with another woman who was living on welfare. I met Acela and the other woman at a rally to increase the California minimum wage and Acela was one of the keynote speakers. I could tell the woman who Acela introduced me to wasn’t interested in telling her story on film so I asked Acela if she would consider being a part of the film. After she told me to quit leaving such long messages on her cellphone because she had a limited plan—she agreed. I think Acela began to trust me when I showed up to film her at 6 AM at her house in East Los Angeles the day after we met.
How did growing up in a rural small town effect how you react to the struggles or the urban poor and working class?
There are working class people and poverty everywhere you go and growing up in a small town is no exception. There are so many other factors involved with the cycle of poverty than just class issues—factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, access to education, affordable healthcare and childcare. It wasn’t until I went to an international university at 18 did I begin to really experience life outside of a rural existence. It was eye opening for me, and I began to realize very quickly that I wanted to be on the forefront of the equal rights and equal pay movements in an urban setting.
What were the best things about growing up in Falls Village?
Growing up my parents worked extremely hard to make the community a stronger and better place to live. In fact, they still do, and I have always taken that with me wherever I have lived or traveled. Your community should be listed as one of the top five human survival needs (maybe after food, water and shelter!) because it offers you a chance to find out what’s important to you, how to be sympathetic and empathetic to those who are not like you and ultimately I believe that all change starts in your own backyard and branches out from there. I appreciated the small tight community of Falls Village.
What were the most challenging aspects of growing up in Falls Village?
I was limited in how much I could do with what I was interested in. I wanted to be an actor, a filmmaker, a TV producer and a writer and Falls Village clearly wasn’t Hollywood. I remember seeing the Bonanza bus at the end of Johnson Road that had a little sign in the window that said NEW YORK CITY and I just couldn’t wait for the day that I could get on that bus and explore what was beyond my own zip code.
What is it like to be returning home to Litchfield County as a documentary filmmaker?
It’s such an honor to have my film in the Kent Film Festival. There is nothing like sharing my work with the people who I’ve grown up among and with. That’s the part of community that I love—that no matter where you go, who you become, what you accomplish—the place that raised you and nurtured you, whether it was positive or negative, will always be a part of how you frame your life.