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(The 2019 SXSW Film Festival runs March 8-17 in the fantastic city of Austin, TX. Lead critic Chris Reed is on the ground in Austin and has his usual massive slate of reviews and interviews. Stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

From director Chelsea Hernandez, making her documentary-feature debut, comes Building the American Dream, an in-depth exposé of the mostly unregulated Texas construction business. The state is home to 4 of the nation’s 5 fastest growing cities, due to Texas’ supposed “miracle” of an economy – fact or fiction? you decide – but such rapid expansion requires someone to do the building. With the Republican majority firmly in charge of regional politics since the ascension of George W. Bush in the 1990s, there has been a consistent push for fewer and fewer workplace rules, since such restrictions are deemed bad for business. Unfortunately, the people who suffer as a result are the builders, the vast majority of whom are undocumented laborers from south of the border. But who cares about them, right? Well, Hernandez does, and so should anyone who dares call themselves human. This movie is for them and their allies, and anyone else willing to listen to reason.

We begin with a death, that of Roendy Granill, a 25-year-old Dallas-based construction worker who collapsed because of heat stroke in July, 2015. His parents have since taken up his cause and that of his colleagues, mobilizing to ask the city council to pass an ordinance mandating 10-minute rest breaks every 4 hours. Sounds simple, except it isn’t for some, and despite the testimony from attorneys, immigrants and doctors, it is unclear if the resolution will pass. One thing is certain, however, which is that both Councilman Lee Kleinman and Mayor Mike Rawlings are callous individuals, clearly in the pocket of the big companies who shun all government-mandated safety measures as an intrusion into how they do business. Yes, such regulations do intrude, and for good reason.

From there, we meet Claudia and Alex, a married couple from El Salvador who are highly trained electricians. Since they are here without papers, they are easily cheated, as happens when the owner of a supermarket refuses to pay them the $11,062 they are owed. Their options are limited, though fortunately there are lawyers willing to help them. And finally, there is Christian, a young man and DACA recipient – also in construction – whose father fell three stories to his own death not long ago. He does his best to provide for his family, but watches with dread the rise of Trump and his erstwhile Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as they try to cancel DACA and jeopardize his position here. Given that most of these (white) American-owned companies thrive on immigrant labor – preferring the undocumented because they can treat them poorly – this attempted new policy of the current presidential administration is not only cruel, but also makes little sense. It’s not as if native-born workers are stepping up.

Building the American Dream packs a lot of information into its brisk 72 minutes, but never feels overly dense, because it focuses on the individual, heartrending stories of all involved. Even were one enraged at the idea of people entering this country illegally, it would be hard to feel no empathy for the movie’s subjects, hard-working, family-loving souls that they are. Irrespective of that, however, every person should be entitled to a modicum of safety on the job. Is that too much to hope for? Perchance to dream…

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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