ChemoTreat: Streaming Past Netflix

It looks as though the pandemic and consequent social distancing will be in place for a few more months at least. That’s fine with me. I have all the sick pay any retired guy could ever need. If that ever runs out, I have a bottomless bucket of vacation days stashed away. The only reasons I leave the house and go somewhere to do something meaningful are either to walk Charlie around the block or go for chemo. The first treatment comes my way on Wednesday morning.

From what I’ve heard about our new nation of self-isolated hermits, there’s a lot of Netflix bingeing going on. I’ve done some myself, but it can only last for so long. Pretty soon you’ve caught up on three seasons of This Is Us and you’ve seen all of The English Game. You got through Peaky Blinders back when the world was a healthier place and you’re only a couple of episodes short of finishing Ozark.

Now you’re close to seeing the bottom of the Netflix bucket. You’re about to realize you’ve seen everything except The Tiger King. You might even convince yourself that this shit show is better than no show. That, my friends, is the moment you should fall on your knees and pray for COVID-19 to take you away.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Netflix is not the only game in town. Understand that when I say “Netflix”, I mean it as a generic catch all that includes the other streaming giants like Crave, Disney, and Prime. They are all cut from the same cloth, all packaged in the same big box, all competing for the same pair of eyes.

You can change the channel and take a break from the big dogs. If you have a membership card for the Guelph Public Library – and who is foolish enough not to have one? – you can get Kanopy. If you don’t live in Guelph, check with your local library. It might provide access in its e-resources.

If you are a certified film buff, you can find a lot of ground-breaking movies such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Or you can find old classics like very early Alfred Hitchcock silent films. Or book a lighthearted escape with Cary Grant. It’s all there.

A few nights ago, I found a couple of old labour documentaries that don’t show up anywhere else. Both were made by the same two film makers, Julia Reichert and James Klein. Union Maids (1976) and Seeing Red (1983) were both nominated for a best documentary Academy Award. Union Maids tells the story of the early days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) an umbrella body that brought unions to the unskilled, the immigrants, women, and blacks. This pool of workers was ignored by the largely white men who made up the American Federation of Labour (AFL).

While you are looking around in Kanopy, keep an eye out for Made in Dagenham. It’s the story of a strike for equal pay by women workers in the Ford factory in Dagenham, England. It stars Sally Hawkins. She had a breakout performance in The Shape of Water. She is also very good in Maudie, the remarkable story of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Union Maids is an oral history told through interviews with three women who helped organize unions in the Chicago packinghouses. The story continues in Seeing Red, an oral history told by about a dozen or so men and women who were active in their unions, in the civil rights and women’s liberation movements and in the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. All were active members of the Communist Party of the USA. The most well known was folk singer Pete Seeger.

These two films resonated with me because I spent about ten years as a member of the Communist Party of Canada. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Party was formed ninety-nine years ago in a barn about a kilometre and a half down the street from where I live now. I still have good friends who were also members back in the day. Some still are.

When I watched these two films, I was struck by the passion and humanity of the working men and women who stood up for social justice and equity for most of the twentieth century. If there’s anything to regret it’s that we do not, in either Canada or our southern neighbour, have a political party strong enough to fight for workers rights in the middle of a pandemic.

It is absurd that the federal government is scrambling to find the masks and respirators needed by health care workers while Canadian billionaires have millions of dollars of unpaid taxes hidden in offshore bank accounts. It is absurd that any Canadians should be living in such precarious circumstances that they need special bailout money to pay their rent. It is absurd that the politicians who adopt relief packages for the workers hurt by COVID-19 are still unwilling to raise the minimum wage to a living level.

Maybe, just maybe, after this pandemic ends and my cancer goes into remission, I’ll see a new social order emerge from the disease-ridden carcass of the old one.

Or maybe Netflix will release season 4 of The Crown and we can all go back to feeling comfortably numb.