In normal circumstances, you would be hard-pressed to find something in common between a small-farmer in Kansas. an ex-convict in Ohio, and a former mortgage administrator in Florida, apart from their common US citizenship. But in The Disrupted, directed by Sarah Colt and Josh Gleason, the impoverishing effects of globalisation on all walks of life are revealed in intimate detail.
It takes a few minutes to understand what Colt and Gleason’s film is about as the directors segue from small farmer Donn Teke feeding his cows, to Latin-American Peter Velez bidding farewell to his friends and co-workers after they are laid off, and then Uber driver Cheryl Long detailing her frustration as she waits – along with scores of other drivers – in a taxi lot as a gremlin-prone app orders them into a queue for customers.
Slowly it dawns on viewers that these three characters are all struggling to make ends meet in a country with the greatest wealth disparity of any in the industrialised world.
The Disrupted is a film about the logical consequences of a global neo-liberal economic order. As the rich get richer, money and jobs are sucked out of lower levels of society.
Documentary filmmakers have been championing the poor and downtrodden for as long as the genre has existed. What is different about this film is that it squarely takes aim at the beleaguered middle class – whose lives have increasingly been pushed to the margins since the recession of 2008-2009.
Donn is an amiable cigar-chomping farmer who works 900 acres of land in a country that looks like little has changed since Judy Garland got whipped away by a Kansas tornado in 1939. We meet him as he feeds his cows before taking the audience on a trip down memory lane as he displays an ancestor’s notebook on farming in 1889, an antique device for darning socks and other artefacts from the five generations of his family who have worked the land here. The current farm dates to 1904, he remarks with pride. But Donn cannot make a living off those 900 acres. Agricultural prices have plummeted in recent years – cattle that would have fetched $70,000 a few years ago struggle to make just over half that now, and when by luck he sells a group of young heifers for $49,000 – $5,000 more than he expected – he tells his son that the money will go straight to paying off interest, but not the capital, on the $300,000 debt he has spent most of his life servicing.
Agriculture in America is big business, but there is increasingly less room for small family farmers of Donn’s type: In 2019 U.S. farmers received more than £30 billion in federal aid and subsidies, the filmmakers tell us. However, official estimates forecast that in 2020 most small farmers will lose money.
these three characters are all struggling to make ends meet in a country with the greatest wealth disparity of any in the industrialised world.
Peter Velez’s world begins to unravel when he is made redundant from a 3M plant where he worked for 11 years earning $23 an hour making industrial gloves. In his mid-40s, married with three grown-up daughters and a son in his early teens, he is fit and optimistic. But as he struggles to retrain as an HVAC engineer, the pressures mount. We learn that he is an ex-offender – when his own father was made redundant during Peter’s teenage years, the family was forced to move to a grim public housing project, where he soon got involved in «cooking cocaine into crack». He was caught and did jail time.
Marriage straightened him out and the couple seems well set to endure the challenge – both are leveled-headed, intelligent, and clearly love each other, despite the rows. But when their son starts struggling at school – bottling up emotions – they reach a crisis that all but breaks the family apart.
Cheryl Long, a college-trained commercial artist, confesses that she «followed the money» and got into mortgage administration because it paid well. When she loses her job, along with more than 140,000 others after the 2008 implosion of the housing market following the «sub-prime» scandal, she struggled to make ends meet. When Uber and Lyft launched in 2014, the ride-finding services became a lifeline for some of the 90,000 still unemployed.
It’s the trickle-up system that has given the lie to American – and world economics – ever since Ronald Reagan championed the «trickle-down» theory of big tax cuts for the rich back in the 1980s.
She used to make good money – $1,000 or even $1,500 a week in the early days – but as competition (and corporate greed) increased, her share of the ride fares fell. By the time the filmmakers met her she was struggling to earn $800 a week working hours that would have a European country hauling a regular company before the court. She tries to organise drivers to protest dropping commissions and launches an online business as a side gig. Still, the pressures mount and a silly accident becomes a catalyst for her to move on to other work.
The Disrupted is an indictment of the neo-liberal system, but uses subtlety, not blunt force, to get its message across. The global forces that are combing to kill the hopes and dreams of these hard-working and disparate characters are never seen or identified. But in a way of far greater reality and relevance to most ordinary Americans than Donald Trump’s odd epithet for the Coronavirus, neo-liberalism is the «invisible enemy» that is stealing American livelihoods while the country’s president fiddles away in the White House like a latter-day Nero.