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'Red Tail' film about Northwest comes through with flying colors

"Red Tail" directors Melissa Koch and Dawn Mikkelson
Emergence Pictures
"Red Tail" directors Melissa Koch and Dawn Mikkelson

Filmmakers Dawn Mikkelson and Melissa Koch have put four years of unpaid labor into "The Red Tail," a stirring new documentary named for the distinctive part of a Northwest Airlines plane — a part that soon enough will be painted blue.

The recent merger of Minnesota's once-proud Northwest with the larger Delta Airlines — new flight attendant uniforms were issued only days ago — gives an ideal timeliness to the 86-minute movie's sneak preview on April 23 as part of the latest Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (M-SPIFF), the two-week cine-bonanza that starts tonight.


By far M-SPIFF's most highly anticipated local work, "The Red Tail" examines globalization and the outsourcing of jobs through a look at the 444-day strike of Northwest employees and, ultimately, the workers' efforts to start anew. The protagonist of the documentary is co-director Koch's father, Roy, an aircraft maintenance engineer who spent decades at Northwest before joining the picket lines along with 4,400 other union workers.

"It became clear that the story of Roy and his family, including Melissa, was a much more compelling and important way of looking at Northwest," says co-director Mikkelson, whose previous films include "THIS Obedience," about lesbian minister Anita C. Hill's struggle with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and "Green Green Water," about the dispute between Manitoba Hydro and Cree Nation citizens.

Just after the start of picketing in August of 2005, Mikkelson met the younger Koch — In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre's community programs director, who was preparing to make a movie about her dad — and the two filmmakers decided to join forces.

With the help of Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff, who appears in the film as an astute and impassioned talking head, "The Red Tail" does a fine job of sketching the history of Northwest, explaining how what was once the world's fourth-largest airline managed to crash and burn.

But the movie mainly addresses the widening economic gap between multinational corporate officers and employees worldwide by following the former mechanic Koch — now a chef — on trips to Hong Kong and mainland China, where he meets the airline's replacement workers and comes to realize the global dimensions of labor struggles.

Having just put the finishing touches on the film, the two filmmakers met me for lunch in St. Paul to talk about "The Red Tail" and what they hope it can achieve.

MinnPost: Was it hard for the two of you to decide on the film's tone — how angry it would be, for instance?

Dawn Mikkelson:
Not really. The tone was based on the Koch family's response [to the loss of Roy's job], and for the most part, their response wasn't angry. If we had followed a family that was pissed off, the film would've taken on that emotion on some level. The Kochs were disappointed and hurt, and there was some anger. But that was not the overriding emotion.

Melissa Koch: Anger isn't the place where my family goes. We tend to go the other way — toward feeling grateful for what we have. So as filmmakers, we found it much harder to negotiate the anger that was around us. We felt pressure from other people — other mechanics, flight attendants, et cetera — who really wanted us to stick it to Northwest. And that was a temptation, for sure. There's so much to be said about the inner workings of Northwest, the interconnectedness of its upper management and Delta's. But we wanted to stay true to our desire to tell the human story and the compassionate story.

MP: Were you prepared to be unpopular in some quarters?

Mikkelson:
We had to be, yeah. We knew we would've had a lot of support from all the big unions if we had said, without equivocation, that unions in every case should go global. But the film doesn't say that, so it's potentially problematic for some of the big unions, and we're still considering our approach with some of them.

MP: How about your interactions with Northwest? Did its bosses want to know what you were up to?

Mikkelson:
Nope.

Koch: We approached [NWA] and said, "Hi, here we are, here is what we're doing. Do you want to talk to us?" And they said, "No. Uh-uh."

Mikkelson: They were so focused on all the things they were dealing with, including the strike. We were a very minor blip on their radar. Which was for the best, except for the fact that we didn't get an interview [with NWA officials]. They didn't want to do it.

MP: Did you ever consider Michael Moore-style tactics? Showing all the obstacles between you and where the power lies?

Koch:
We actually considered how to stay away from [his style].

Mikkelson: I'm not sure what you accomplish by chasing people down — except to make them look like jerks.

Koch: We wanted to focus on the workers — here, in Hong Kong, in China. We didn't want to spend our energy on making someone look bad.

Mikkelson: See, there are people taking advantage of workers, yes, but they're doing it because the system allows it, encourages it. Yes, there are bad guys, but by focusing on them, you're taking away from the focus on the larger questions. When you make a film about bad guys, I think it lets the audience off the hook. The audience can say, "Well, they're bad, but we're good, and that's it." But that's not the issue. Because the reality is that if one of these bad guys goes away, the system will replace him with another bad guy. We don't claim to have the answers, but we do have a sense of what we should be talking about. If we had the answers, we wouldn't be making a film; we'd be fixing the problem.

MP: The obvious question: When you went to China and Hong Kong, did you fly on Northwest?

Koch:
Um, no [laughs]. We flew United and China Air.

MP: Out of fear for your safety [laughs]?

Koch:
No. Mainly we just weren't going to cross the picket line. The upside of our dad working in the airline industry for 38 years is that most of our family friends are in the airline industry, at many different airlines all over the country. So our trip to Hong Kong, for instance, was covered.

Mikkelson: And the tickets for China Air were cheap because one of their planes had just blown up!

MP: Is that what they call a "normal emergency" [laughs]?

Koch:
Yes. The plane blew up and crashed — "normal"! But seriously, for the China trip, we flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong and took a train to mainland China, followed by another train.

Mikkelson: It could've been done much more quickly, but we were trying to slide in. We had a sense that we might get our gear confiscated if we flew directly to China with journalist visas. So we took the long way — with tourist visas.

MP: Has the mainstream media, in your view, offered any respectable coverage of the Northwest story?

Mikkelson:
If so, I must've missed it.

Koch: I can remember feeling great disappointment in how the strike was being covered on TV and in newspapers. That event was huge, affecting so many people, and so much of the coverage I saw was focused on the flying public and how they were going to be affected. The stories were positioning all of us as consumers, not as workers or family or friends or community members or taxpayers. There was so much more to be covered.

Mikkelson: There were plenty of stories about the impact on the business community. How would Bachmann's get their flowers on airplanes in time for Valentine's Day? Meanwhile, people were losing benefits from the state. Workers were suffering, losing their homes.

Koch: The story dropped out of sight eventually. The strike went on for 444 days, but from how it was covered, people thought it was over much sooner. People would say to me, "I thought that ended!"

MP: The film has been in the works for four years. How long did the edit take?

Koch:
It took about a year and a half. We had 6,000 minutes of footage. In the first versions, we had more scenes of my family. Eventually, we ended up adding more traditional documentary material — comments from Rachleff, from Jim Oberstar, scenes sketching the history of Northwest. We added more context to the film. And we tightened it.

MP: Do you think "The Red Tail" is a movie about what was lost?

Mikkelson:
There were a lot of missed opportunities to keep the airline in Minnesota, to keep jobs in Minnesota. Maybe the next time we see something like this occurring, we can act.

Koch: I agree that there's a huge lesson to be learned in terms of the accountability that we demand of corporations. Are we going to learn those lessons? I don't know. I hope the film will help people talk about the issues — because what happened was not inevitable. At the same time, I think the film shows what wasn't lost. It shows what these [striking workers] did, which was so incredible, so noble. I hope the film will remind people that 4,000 of these people stayed on strike for more than a year. They knew at a certain point that they weren't going to win, but [continuing] was a matter of dignity and integrity, a matter of doing the right thing.

Mikkelson: If Hollywood was telling this story, they'd need a happy ending. If the workers had won the strike, then we might see a Hollywood movie that would make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. But that's not how it turned out. It's hard for us in this society to deal with a story that doesn't go the way it should, the way we want it to. It's much easier to wrap it up in a bow.

MP: Which is to say that you're doing the right thing too, huh? By telling the story with integrity, whatever the costs to the movie's commercial fate?

Koch:
Yes, thanks! For me, this project was an enactment of those values of solidarity that my family practiced by reaching out to workers in Asia. Making the film, we were extending our support to workers. There were many choices along the way that enforced this sense that we were trying to practice what we were preaching.

Mikkelson: Often times, workers, people not in the elite, feel like there's nothing they can do in light of the global economy. They feel they can't affect how they're treated as workers, where their jobs are going, where their neighbors' jobs are going. This film shows workers in action. Roy lost his job, but he didn't just say, "Oh, bummer." He went to China to meet other workers and express his solidarity with them.

Koch: And that by itself doesn't change the world, but hopefully it's inspiring. We want the film to be about spreading awareness, encouraging people to have a voice.

"The Red Tail" screens Thursday, April 23 at St. Anthony Main as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Tickets to the screening can be purchased here.

Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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Comments (9)

Dawn Mikkelson said: "We had a sense that we might get our gear confiscated if we flew directly to China with journalist visas. So we took the long way — with tourist visas."

If this is true: Mikkelson and Koch entered China on false pretense with the assumption that their gear wouldn't be confiscated, and they wouldn't be deported, if they were found out. How incredibly stupid and reckless. If there's one guarantee in reporting in China, the safest visa is the J visa - the journalism visa - because the CCP won't risk the international embarrassment of messing with someone who is traveling on one. Next time, maybe ask for some advice before putting yourself at risk.

Seems a little like promotion, rather than a review, for Rob Nelson to ask the filmmakers if there was "respectable" mainstream media coverage and to follow up with an offhand comment that the story is being told with "integrity."

While I felt and still feel bad for the mechanics who lost their jobs in the strike, that strike put the entire company and EVERYONE'S jobs at risk. There's a time to fight for better wages and treatment and there's a time to realize the economic reality of the company. The strike failed because the union didn't come to terms with reality. The worst part is people like the movie maker's father paid the price.

Clarification on the J Visa comment. Some risks are worth taking to get the true story. After seeking advice from documentary filmmakers around the world, we refused to endanger our Chinese contacts by having the crew accompanied by a government representative 24/7. Also, we were made aware of 2 crews that entered with J-Visas at the same time we did and both had their gear confiscated before they entered the country. Obviously they couldn't do their job without their cameras. One must remember, China does NOT have freedom of speech or press. What is "reckless" to some, was the way of getting a truthful story that didn't endanger those we interviewed.

I will not miss this film. 24/7 I'm reminded of the power of the corporate airlines when the planes float over my south Minneapolis home. Any film that elevates the individual day to day worker to the rank of human being has got to be a stellar piece. I think the filmakers for the risk they took for enlightening the rest of us. Someone has to look the Lord of Flies world economy in the face and lift up the human being.

Dawn - I'm sorry, but that's just not a credible answer to the visa question. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has been tracking incidents of reporter harassment since 2007, and though there are plenty of accounts of videotapes and memory cards being seized, there aren't any recorded incidents of equipment being seized. You may find the list here:

http://www.fccchina.org/harras.htm

With all due respect, there are plenty of journalists - including film crews - who enter China to do far, far more sensitive stories than yours, and they do it on J visas, and without being accompanied by Chinese press minders (especially in Shanghai).

In any case, I think you're likely aware of the fact that - as a small independent film company - you almost certainly didn't qualify for a J-2 visa in the first place. J and J-2 visas go to "correspondents" from established media organizations (an admittedly vague group to define). Of course, plenty of good journalists work in China on L (tourist) visas at their own risk. No shame in that. Here's hoping you'll be a touch more forthcoming in future interviews.

I'm looking forward to seeing this film, hopefully with my neighbor, another old-time NWA mechanic.

What I expect will be outside the scope of this film is the prelude, when Al Cecchi and the money mobsters behind him set the stage for the death of the airline. What they did was one piece of the runup to the whole financial disaster of our time - a leveraged buyout enabled by too-easy credit.

Cecchi and company gave the then stockholders of NWA a good price for their stock (although there were some who did not willingly sell), and they did it by lading the company with enormous debt. They bought control of a company with no debt and loaded it with debt service that would inevitably crush it. In the process, the financiers extracted a billion or so for themselves and ran away. Remember how Cecchi was suddenly a big donor to local institutions? What a tiny fraction of what they all stole! Then he used some of the millions of the loot to finance his own run for governor of California.

Allison Miller: Northwest used, I believe, one of those extremely-expensive-but-worth-every-penny anti-labor union-busting consultants to help them break the unions by dealing with them one at a time.

Had the three unions (mechanics/ground service, flight attendants, pilots) united at the beginning of the strike by ALL going out on strike in solidarity, the airline wouldn't have been able to operate and would have had to make some kind of settlement that the unions could all accept.

That would have been the right time and place!

I'm very much looking forward to this film. While there could be much debate about the union's tactics and difficulties in uniting with the other NWA unions, the real story here is about the impact of globalization and 'reality' on real people.
As the filmmakers point out 'reality' here is really a constructed set of rules about how business is done and profits maximized. I'd like to hope that that 'reality' is not inevitable and know that it is the result of decades of deregulation and lack of enforcement of worker's rights. The reality of the consequences for workers, their families and communities deserves a voice as much as the incessant voice of business.