Three families working hard yet facing economic disruption

The stock market is bullish, but even before COVID-19 struck, those in the struggling middle class who didn’t have the luxury of investment portfolios found themselves in difficult straits. Sarah Colt and co-director Josh Gleason’s melancholy and moving documentary, “The Disrupted,” skillfully links the fortunes of three such salt-of-the-earth Americans who played by the rules and worked hard but still saw their efforts evaporate. Now they desperately search for a plan B — or C or D.

What could be more American than a Kansas farmer, the fifth-generation owner of 900 acres of prairie, growing crops and raising cattle. Donn Teske fits the image — 62, jowly, a cigar perpetually stuck in the corner of his mouth, contemplating with stoic wisdom the declining fortunes of his livelihood, which has been devastated by corporate farming and falling prices.

But Teske is no passive victim. He’s vice president of the National Farmers Union and in one sequence changes his overalls for a suit and tie to testify before a congressional committee about the hardships faced by small farmers. But his own situation seems unsalvageable. Deeply in debt, he faces the prospect of selling at least some of his land. His hope is that one of his two sons, both of whom work at full-time jobs and have limited time to help their father, might take on ownership of the land to keep the farm in the family.

Pete and Melissa Velez at Pete’s HVAC graduation.
Pete and Melissa Velez at Pete’s HVAC graduation.Sarah Colt Productions

Pete Velez, in Ohio, had been working for 12 years at the local 3M sponge factory, making $23 an hour. Now it has shut down, and on the last day he meets his fellow ex-employees and passes around a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. His optimism is indomitable, but not contagious. He points out one of the workers who bought a $40,000 truck despite the pending layoffs. “Confidence,” he says. Someone replies, “That’s either bravery or stupidity.”

Back home, his wife is less sanguine. Velez assures her that with unemployment benefits they’ll do fine until he earns a degree qualifying him to work in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). But their son is having problems at school, and Velez’s wife worries that her husband, who had served time in prison for drug offenses, might fall back into bad habits.

Cheryl Long sitting in cellphone waiting lot.
Cheryl Long sitting in cellphone waiting lot.Sarah Colt Productions

Cheryl Long of Tampa had been doing well in the mortgage industry, until the crash in 2008, but bounced back as a driver for Lyft and Uber. She made good money at the job and loved chatting with passengers. Recently, though, the companies have begun cutting drivers’ rates. Now an 18-hour shift working for the billion-dollar corporations might bring in only $100, a pittance for someone with a family to support.

Like a modern-day Norma Rae, Long works on organizing a strike, forming a skimpy picket line with fellow drivers holding handmade placards at the airport parking lot. The movement fails to grow, and the companies cut their rates even more. Can Long adjust once again to an economic system that favors corporate wealth and denies those who work hard the fruits of their labor?

Colt and Gleason interweave these stories with subtlety and irony, catching the nuanced details of their subjects’ lives and relationships, the cinematography evoking a mood of fading hope and dogged resistance. The final sequence, in which all three subjects and their families celebrate the 4th of July, the fireworks flashing in the waning light, seems less a celebration than a portent of hard times to come.

“The Disrupted” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, beginning on Oct. 2, followed by a Digital VOD release on Oct. 13.

Go to coolidge.org/films/disrupted.

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