Documentary Explores Lives of Migrant Dairy Workers in Vt.

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — White letters fade in and out of a black backdrop.

“In 1953, there were 10,000 dairy farms in Vermont.

“In 2009, there were 1,000.”

Try not gasping at that statistic when you see the first frame of “Hide,” a 30-minute documentary by Middlebury College students Elori Kramer and Peter Coccoma that takes audiences inside the daily lives of the growing population of migrant farm workers in the Canada-kissing Green Mountain State.

In recent years, Vermont’s remaining dairy farmers have turned to Latin American migrant workers — mostly undocumented — in the wake of a strange wave of unreliable help, and bad economic conditions.

“We wanted to be really careful not to point fingers with this film,” said Kramer, who will graduate from Middlebury College next year with a geography degree. Coccoma graduated last spring with a degree in history.

“We can all agree that the milk industry is suffering,” Kramer continued, “that NAFTA has created an economy that displaces Mexican workers, and that those workers are now supporting Vermont’s dairy industry in conditions that are often times not great. We want to raise the question of what can be done about this, rather than blame certain parties.”

Kramer and Coccoma also scored the film. They are in a band, Alpenglow, which starts a U.S. tour in June. The filmmakers’ solemn, synth-heavy score is the spine of “Hide,” which connects images of migrant workers with their multi-voiced narration (and subtitles).

Kramer and Coccoma also peppered “Hide” with shots of happy-looking families enjoying various dairy products in what resemble Vermont homes.

“If you are drinking milk in the morning or in the night, don’t forget that me and thousands and thousands of guys are milking the cows for you,” says Bernadino Hernandez, a worker in the film.

There are about 1,500 migrant workers in Vermont; it has sparked debate from town halls to the Statehouse, where a bill is pending to grant drivers licenses to migrant workers. Rep. Norm McAllister, a Highgate, Vt., Republican and dairy-turned-goat farmer, voted against the bill. He is in his first term on the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee.

The Senate approved the bill earlier this month; it awaits House approval.

“Living on the (Canadian) border, and also hearing from our farms and their nervousness as to what the liability situation would be, I can’t support the bill,” McAllister has told Vermont media.

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, Vt., the other lone dissenter, has said, “This is not a migrant bill for farm workers. There is nothing in here about migrant farm workers. What this bill is about is a way for someone who cannot get a license to be able to qualify to get it, regardless of their legal presence.”

Lack of migrant workers mobility is one issue explored in “Hide.” The film also touches upon workers’ fear to leave the farm, because they could be deported. In turn, they neglect medical treatment when necessary and work 60-to-80-hour weeks in isolation, sometimes unaware of their location.

Some scenes show workers at meetings with Migrant Justice, which formed after the December 2009 death of a migrant farm worker. Since then, Migrant Justice has mobilized workers and organized a strong coalition of farmers, farmworkers and allies to give migrant workers more fundamental rights.

Brendan Smith, of Migrant Justice, worked with Kramer and Coccoma on “Hide.” Migrant Justice was key to making the film.

“ Hide’ has been a great tool to educate the public at large by humanizing the invisible and hidden hands that sustain Vermont’s dairy industry,” Smith said. “It does a good job of showing a range of experiences of migrant workers on Vermont dairy farms, including one worker who speaks of feeling like he’s part of the family and well respected, while still sharing the challenges of being forced to live underground due to a broken immigration system.

“It also demonstrates that there are things we can do at the state level, like create access to driver’s licenses, regardless of immigration status, to improve the lives of dairy workers, rather than wait for federal immigration reform.”

Coccoma began volunteering with Migrant Justice in 2012, learned about migrant workers’ issues, met many of them, and then started offering them rides, when he could. He then started a research project with Middlebury professor Jamie McCallum.

Dairy farms surrounded Kramer in his native Minneapolis, Minn., but he had no personal experience with dairy farms until he wrote a research paper on migrant farmworkers at Middlebury.

“I enjoyed writing the paper and learned a lot, but after the paper was over, that was it,” he recalled. “For human rights issues, writing a paper isn’t enough.”

Enter the film — their first. They worked from June 1 to Sept. 1, 2012, as directors, producers, cameramen, promoters and editors.

“The editing was by far the most time-consuming part,” Kramer said. “It was difficult to try to put a cohesive narrative together using everyone’s voices while simultaneously obscuring identity.”

They worked hard to protect workers’ and farmers’ identities.

“It was a priority to let them feel safe to speak their mind about the issue and to let them highlight the issues they believed were important,” Coccoma said. “Migrant Justice helped in this process by connecting us with farmworkers who felt comfortable sharing their story.”

They released “Hide” at two screenings in Middlebury and Burlington; both attracted about 100 people. Since then, they’ve honored requests for 10 more screenings — including one at the Statehouse this month — and have been flooded with more.

“To be honest, the film is turning into more than we ever imagined,” Kramer said. “We expected to have two screenings and then be done, but the film is developing legs of its own. So our marketing and distribution is developing a bit late. Our plan is to press DVDs and have them available for online purchase.”

Kramer and Coccoma are at work on their next film, but it is a departure from “Hide.” They are shooting a 15-minute fable in Cooperstown, N.Y., using music from Alpenglow’s upcoming album.

“One lesson we learned from Hide’ was not to do everything ourselves,” Kramer said. “So we’ve assembled a talented team of people to work on the film with us.”


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