It’s said that there isn’t a single high rise building in the New York City skyline that wasn’t touched by the hand of a Mohawk. For generations, Mohawk ironworkers and high steel workers have taken on the very dangerous job of raising the frames of bridges and high rise buildings.
Katja Essen’s beautiful film Skydancer takes the viewer behind the scenes and into the lives of Jerry McDonald Thundercloud and Sky Fox, two Mohawk high steel workers. These men and their families were extremely gracious and forthcoming, inviting the camera on to the Akwesasne Reservation in upstate New York, into their homes, and even into the Longhouse. We meet their families, learn of their history, and we are given the opportunity to listen as they speak very frankly about their lives on and off the job.
From the earliest scenes in this film, the viewer is brought into direct contact with the perils of high steel work. The work demands such a keen level of alertness and intense focus, and that alone must be enough to mentally exhaust a person by the end of a work day. But added to that, it requires a very high level of fitness to climb several stories of steel columns and to remain balanced enough to walk on a narrow steel girder when one false step could seriously compromise or end your life. Both men began working in high steel when they were still in their teens. Now they are facing middle age, and the struggles are even more difficult. McDonald tells of having survived three devastating falls. These men also put to rest the myth that Mohawks are fearless while walking on the steel frames. Each man who spoke affirmed a healthy respect for the danger involved in their work. They do face fear and they have to manage it.
The first time that I viewed the footage (shot by McDonald) on a high steel frame, I almost couldn’t handle it. It raised such anxiety within me that I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through the film. In subsequent viewings I had to keep reminding myself that no one was going to fall, and that this was just the work that goes on in this city every single day — incredibly important work done by unsung workers. This is an extremely tough occupation and it’s not for the faint of heart. The job alone would take a toll on any mortal.
McDonald’s and Fox’s families choose to stay upstate in Akwesasne during the work week. When work is over on Friday afternoons, the men hop in their cars and drive six hours to get back home. We are shown the stress that this puts on the families, to have the fathers absent all week long, and then to have to say good-bye to them again on Sunday afternoons when they leave for the city.
We also see the additional stress put on the men. On weekdays, when the work day is over, they go back to an apartment that they share in Brooklyn. Without any family around them, some are driven to drink. They are also subject to blatantly racist discrimination and segregation on the job. At times, it becomes so intolerable that it can drive a man to quit a job.
The film closes with Sky Fox raising a very poignant question about our capitalist society and the compromises and sacrifices that we make and the conflicts we face in order to work within the system. He basically asks, “Whose idea was this?”, because clearly, it makes so little sense, yet we are all enslaved by it. It’s a question that I think many of us have had to confront in our lives. These good hardworking men are made to carry a heavy burden and endure an “inner balancing act” as well, just to earn a living within a society that destroyed indigenous lifeways – ways of life which make so much more sense if you ask me.
After the showing that I saw at Indie Screen, Bear Fox, the wife of Sky Fox, spoke to the audience and sang a few songs, one of which was her own composition which is so catchy and has been stuck in my head ever since.
I truly wish that I could arrange to see the film again at the second screening for the Brooklyn Film Festival. I loved this film and I hope that it will be out on DVD some day.
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Skydancer will be shown on Thursday, June 9, 2011 at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.