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Adjustment and Work (1986)

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25 January 2014 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

"Work Makes Freedom" - sign above Auschwitz entrance

"Adjustment and Work" is a brutal documentary by Frederick Wiseman. The film opens with a series of establishing shots, perhaps designed to emphasise the banal sights and sounds which "ordinary" humans routinely overlook. We then nosedive into the walls of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Here, handicapped men and women are taught to overcome or cope with their disabilities.

The details Wiseman lingers on, however, paint a situation far more grotesque. At the Institute, we watch as handicapped men and women are categorised, processed, trained to use money and taught specific skills. The hope is that they might one day "enter the workforce". Once sufficiently "adjusted", their "broken bodies" are thus redefined as "useful tools". For most of the film, this is portrayed as an empowering transformation.

By the film's second half, however, Wiseman has begun questioning notions of empowerment. Eventually it is revealed that those who are certified "fit" by the Institute get jobs performing mechanistic labour at factories making gear for the US Army. What's more, these factories have complex government contracts. Wiseman doesn't tell us how much this handicapped workforce is paid, but we know that the same system exists today, and that contemporary disabled workers are paid as little as 22 cents per hour, thanks to labour law loop holes. More specifically, these workers are exploited via a federal law called the Special Wage Certificate Program, which permits companies to obtain a certificate that allows them to hire disabled workers and pay less than the minimum wage. A 2006 study showed that Americans with disabilities made, on average, $0.60 cents per hour for their work. The justifications for such things are always the same: "the market judges how much one should be paid", "these workers are not worth full pay", "if they were paid more they would not be hired", "if they were paid more they would lose state benefits", "they should be thankful for the work", "nobody else would hire them" etc.

"Adjustment and Work" contains a number of powerful sequences. One of its best moments involves a blind man attempting to walk down a street, an ordinary task made Herculean by the man's plight. Another scene hints that a handicapped woman has been swindled out of her money. This is itself the crux of the film: compassion and exploitation often exist within a complex, almost intertwined relationship.

Wiseman's films have always sought out segregated social spaces, typically occupied by persons classified as deviant (prisons, hospitals, charity networks, shelters, training centres). In the 1980s he embarked upon a series ("Deaf", "Blind", "Multi-handicapped", "Adjustment and Work") which focused on America's disabled population. These are all films populated by individuals on the margins of capitalism, all of whom are subjected to regimes of power which cordon off the bodies of those who fail to adapt or "adjust". Only once the perfectible body is corrected, by teams of well-meaning professionals, therapists and administrators, is it then welcomed back into the fold. In these films, we see what amounts to a hegemonic aesthetic; blindness, mental retardation, deafness etc do not constitute the actual "disability". What matters is that one is adjusted to or for work. Only once the subject is "corrected", is it deemed "normal".

"Adjustment and Work" ends with workers and administrators discussing the fact that many handicapped workers have been taking "sick leave". The administrators suspect that the workers are faking illness to get out of work, but are also open to the possibility that the workers may "genuinely be sick". Several workers object to the notion that disabled persons are "more sick than persons who are not handicapped", and insist that "the next generation of handicapped workers is simply lazy". It's a hilarious sequence which not only taps into how completely these workers have been colonised ("We work therefore we are not disabled!") but also the kind of lower and middle class bigotry which capitalism depends upon; the system pits the middle against the bottom, the bottom against the middle and both against the third world. Fittingly, Wiseman's next film was "Missile", a documentary about the ICBM crews tasked with nuking non-Americans.

9/10 – Slow but interesting.

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