Interview with Maggie Bowman, producer of Hard Earned

DJ Strikes
Percy working
Diana working
Jose and Elizabeth Wedding Day

Hard Earned is a six-part documentary series produced by Kartemquin Films and Al Jazeera America that explores the hopes, fears and realities of low-wage American workers, following five families across the country trying to achieve the American Dream. The series is slated to air on Sunday nights beginning May 3rd on Al Jazeera America Presents.

The Hard Earned series producer is Maggie Bowman, directors are Katy Chevigny, Maria Finitzo, Ruth Leitman, Brad Lichtenstein, and Joanna Rudnick, with series editors & co-directors Liz Kaar and David E. Simpson, and executive producers Steve James, Justine Nagan, and Gordon Quinn.

Before that world TV premiere, Maggie Bowman, series producer, took the time to tell us about her experiences working on this landmark new series.

Questions and transcription by Mihaela Popescu, Spring '15 Intern.

Why did you want to make this documentary?
We were in the great position of being approached by Al Jazeera America who had the idea for the series and so they approached Kartemquin. They knew they wanted something on this topic and (executive producer) Justine Nagan put together a team and asked me to be a part of it to try to capture these stories. Personally, it's been a topic close to my heart for a very long time, I used to be a Union organizer and spent 5 years working on campaigns to organize low-wage workers into unions so they can improve their wages and working conditions. So, through that work and the approach that Kartemquin takes to making films on social issues, I knew it was a project that I really wanted to be a part of.

Is this your first producing experience with Kartemquin? How was it working with them?
This is my first experience working on a project directly with them. I like to say that I've been kind of circling around and peeking in the windows of Kartemquin for a while and really admiring the work and the people here. But since moving back to Chicago from New York in 2007, I worked on various other documentary projects in the city and hadn't yet worked on one of Kartemquin's, so everything that I had admired from the outside was absolutely wonderful to experience working on the project from the inside: the collaborative effort, the deep commitment to the subjects and the real love for the people that we were turning our cameras on. I couldn't have asked for a more genuinely committed interested and ethically minded group of collaborators on this project. We've been asking to spend time in the lives of people who don't have very much time. They're spending every hour of every week either at work, with their families, sleeping, taking care of themselves and to ask those people to allow a camera into those really intimate parts of their lives is not an easy thing and I think, because Kartemquin has a long history of really collaborating with their subjects on those kinds of storytelling endeavors, there's an extreme sensitivity for how to do that in a way that has a lot of respect and humanity as part of the process.

How long did it take to finish the project?
Overall, it was a year and a half.

And do you feel you had enough time to do this series?
It was a really compressed timeline for this type of filmmaking and when you compare it to the previous series that Kartemquin made along these lines, ten years ago, The New Americans, which took several years to make, it was a really short time frame. I think that we were all kind of surprised by how much it actually happened in the lives of our subjects in a short period of time, so even though the viewers will be witnessing roughly 6 months of these people's lives, they will really be able to see a real snapshot of what it's like to get by on a low-wage job.

After making this series, do you see differently the low-wage workers and if yes, in what way?
I think that it's just always enlightening and inspiring to see the resilience of people who really thrive while really struggling to make ends meet. There were constantly challenges that our characters faced that were pretty mind-blowing because they're not part of my daily experience, but they were always matched by an equally mind blowing determination to succeed and do well for their families. So, I wouldn't say that it changed any ideas that I had, but I would say it was revelatory. We did a lot of data research, which really helped us contextualize these stories and there's a lot of that in the series, where we manage to connect these individual personal stories to larger national trends around the low-wage work. So, that was really interesting, having that kind of data come in and inform us how the proportionality of the low-wage jobs in the work force has grown due to the recession, largely replacing mid-wage jobs. I think that many people who watch the series can relate to it on some level, whether it's because of their own personal experience or because of a family member or someone they interacted with in their community. These kinds of jobs are all around us and really affect all of our communities.

Who is your audience for this film?
Well, Al Jazeera America commissioned this series. They're a new network still building their audience. They launched in US in August of 2013, actually just a month before we started the project. So, they've been really trying to hit a part of the market that is interested in long form storytelling, they're a news network, but they really proud themselves on going deeper into the subjects and telling longer stories that have a really outstanding documentary showcase on Sunday nights called "Al Jazeera America presents" and so, Hard Earned will be shown as part of that. Also, there's a strong chance that Al Jazeera English, which broadcasts around the world, will also air the series. Beyond that, we're hoping to do what Kartemquin has been doing with all of its films in its nearly fifty-year history, which is to get it out there into the community, to be part of public dialogue around low-wage work through an audience engagement campaign. Right now we're trying to get some funding to make sure that a wide variety of communities who don't have subscriptions on their cable to Al Jazeera America can still have access to see the series or to see portions of it and have interesting panel discussions with the community groups. We think that there's a lot of discussion that can come from this series, so it's really important for us to make sure that it lives off TV as well.

You said earlier that a lot of people would relate to the stories. What about employers, how will this film be relevant for them?
I think that every employer is a human being as well and I think that the whole purpose of making these kinds of films is to generate empathy and understanding about human experiences. So, whether the viewer is a lawyer who is making 6 figures, whether it's an employer at a large multinational corporation or a small shop owner or a low-wage worker, there's a commonality in that. We all have a relationship to work in our lives and to see how one group, one growing percentage of the workforce is affected by their work, how they think of their work, what role work means in their lives and their family lives, how they support their families, how long it takes them to go to work, how they choose between going to the doctor and missing work if they're sick, I think that all of those are universal elements of the human experience, of the human experience as workers, and that can really draw people into start thinking where we stand as a country in terms of the changing face of our workforce and the changing face of jobs of America.

What impact do you think this film will have on the minimum wage movement?
One of the stories specifically addresses the movement, so the viewers will get to learn about that kind of activism and organizing through the story of one of our subjects, DJ Jackson who starts out as a retail worker at Walgreens, gets involved in this union campaign and starts to take the message out as an organizer to other low-wage workers. I think that one of the amazing aspects of that campaign is that it really has sparked a national conversation about not only what workers need to live on, but also how employers can thrive. We now see employers who try to get ahead of minimum wage laws as they start to recognize is their own self interest to retain workers and to have a really productive workforce. So, I think it's been really interesting to me that that campaign that was targeting a particular type of policy change labor agreement has actually had the effect of engaging a much wider audience in a conversation about wages.

For example, we have Hilton’s story in Silicon Valley who was working for Google indirectly through a food service contractor. My hope is that through seeing Hilton's story, we won’t have a conversation about Google necessarily, we’ll see it as a way to look at all the changes that have happened in the Silicon Valley region, which has been a hugely celebrated area of economic growth in the tech industry. There have been some really interesting studies to show that for every high-tech worker in the Silicon Valley there are five service workers to support that job, so the infrastructure and the whole economy is based on service workers who are making a fraction of what the high-tech workers are making and those kinds of shifts have led to a massive inequality in the region.

And you can see it reflected in the high house prices for that region.
Right, it's incredibly expensive to live in the Silicon Valley and Hilton and Diana, our subjects, when we first meet them, they’re sharing a garage in a trailer park with another person. So, we have 3 adults living in a garage with no running water, no windows. They have space heaters to keep them warm and they use the communal bathroom in the trailer park. And for that their portion of rent is 300$ a month. There are people who need to live in the region because that's where the jobs are, whether that's cleaning the office buildings at night, serving food or working as security guards. There has been a real growth of those types of service jobs in the region, but the people who do those jobs can't afford to live in the area. They take very long bus drives, use a public transportation system that's limited and really spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing compared to other parts of the country. We're able to look through the story of one young couple who is trying to achieve the American dream in the Silicon Valley and use that as an window to look at a very rapidly changing growing part of our economy which is widely celebrated as being the future of our economic growth. If we look at that story, we can start to have a conversation about what the impact is of that particular model of economic growth and to start to look at how should we, as a community, get involved and make sure that that growth happens in a way that's good for the community as whole.

Don't miss the Hard Earned premiere on Al Jazeera America. You can find out more about the broadcast schedule here: