‘Hard Earned’ Shows the Challenges of Making a Living and a Life

Economic stories that focus on numbers — employment rates, job creation rates, wages, and inflation — fail to show the real price, the human costs, of financial realities. Hard Earned, an upcoming documentary series from Kartemquin Films, tells stories about people working to make a living and working to make a life following the economic recession.

Hard Earned is a six-part series that aired on Al Jazeera America. The series paints intimate portraits of people from across the country:

  • Emilia Stancati, 50, a tell-it-like-it-is waitress in Chicago and its suburbs who seeks higher wages, weekends off, and Harley riding time
  • Takita Akins, 24, and De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson, 23, who work at Walgreen’s in Chicago and juggle health, kids, and long commutes on public transportation
  • Jose Merino, 32, and Elizabeth Bonta, 27, who live with family members while they save for their own home in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Hilton Kennedy III, 20, and his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez, 18, who live in a garage in the Silicon Valley while preparing for their twins’ arrival
  • Percy, 66, and Beverly, 65, Evans who face working through their retirement years in order to keep their Milwaukee home

They want not extravagant but basic things that bring quality to life — to feel like they are contributing to their jobs, to have opportunities to move up, to get an education, to have their own safe home, to pursue their own passions, not to choose between health and work, and not to worry about money. They work hard to keep up, even try to get ahead, but it seems like something always gets in the way.

Their stories blow away any illusions about the challenges of trying to make a living in this country. The episodes show them balancing everyday decisions about home, health, work, transportation, and paychecks with decisions about finding stability and growing in professions, faith, and hobbies. These decisions and their outcomes give this series its depth and its strength.

DJ, for example, works as a wine and spirits specialist at a Chicago Walgreen’s for $10.50 an hour. That $10.50 an hour comes to $21,000 per year.

But like most everyone, DJ seeks more from work than just a wage — he seeks meaning and wants to make a difference. Beyond that, he wants to be a good role model for his family. He later lands an opportunity to work as a union organizer with a decent salary, but the opportunity comes with a heavier workload and the obligation to buy a car.

Like life, though, every story has uncertainties, upswings, and downswings, such as a car failing to start, a mortgage opportunity falling through, an unexpected expense throwing off the budget. One bit of news proves almost devastating for Hilton and Diana. But there are high points as well, with weddings, new homes, and unexpected opportunities.

Multiple other themes weave throughout the series, such as immigration, generational differences, and cultural expectations. Emilia struggled with arriving in the United States as a child who spoke no English and still struggles with getting along with her father and building a relationship with her daughter and grandson. Hilton, an American citizen by birth who grew up in Mexico, struggles with finding work and learning English. Elizabeth Bonta works hard to support and care for her ailing parents.

The series structure allows everything to unfold organically. Instead of one episode focusing on people in one location, each one weaves sequences from the different narratives throughout. The pacing allows time to get to know them and their circumstances, their hardships and their joys.

The stories drive the series, but relevant stats supplements them. Simple graphics show the difference gaining or losing a couple dollars per hour makes, or what taking on a second job means in terms of money and time. For example, one stat mentions how the number of midwage jobs before the recession was 3.8 million, but the number of midwage jobs after recession was 700,000. The graphics show the obstacles to getting ahead, with salaries dropping and costs rising. Getting ahead is expensive, but so is just getting by.

Different directors filmed the stories for this series. Ruth Leitman captured Emilia’s story, while Brad Lichtenstein captured Percy and Beverly’s story. Joanna Rudnick filmed Hilton and Diana, while Maria Finitzo filmed DJ and Takita’s story. Katy Chevigny captured Jose and Elizabeth’s segments. Even with this multi-director approach, they unite seamlessly.

For the most part, the directors remain in the background, letting their participants take center stage. Occasionally, their presence becomes known but not obtrusively. Off camera, someone asks the Percys, “How much do you still owe?” in reference to their mortgage. They reveal that after 13 years, they still owe the same amount they purchased the house for. At another point Emilia mentions her warnings to the filmmakers about her smoking, motorcycle riding, and truck driver language.

Elizabeth Laidlaw’s light narration provides facts, updates, and insights into their situations without offering judgment or evaluation. Her narration stitches these segments together across the episodes, providing cohesion.

The one word that kept coming back to me throughout this series — and throughout all the Kartemquin films I have seen so far — is dignity. An unfortunate shame can accompany talking about difficult economic situations, leaving people feeling vulnerable about circumstances that often lie beyond their control. The people in this series make themselves vulnerable in talking openly and honestly about their situations, and the series deeply respects that trust and their dignity throughout in letting them tell their own stories in their own ways.

The Challenges of Getting and Staying ‘In the Game’

Sport documentaries are one of the oldest and most popular genres of the form. Some of the earliest films recorded boxing matches, as the sport’s confined area and bright lighting paired well with camera capabilities at the time. Later documentaries highlighted the spectacles of athletes and their abilities. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) offer stunning footage in this regard. Competition and its narrative arc provide an almost natural structure for an exciting documentary about the game.

Many documentaries about sport chronicle individual athletes and their achievements. Consider the long list of documentaries about Muhammad Ali — When We Were Kings (1996), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), and I Am Ali (2014), among many others. Athletes’ struggles beyond competing recur thematically as well, such as in The Heart of the Game (2005) and, of course, Hoop Dreams (1994). Fewer documentaries address entire teams, and even when they do, they focus on a key player or two at most.

Women’s and girls’ sports remain underrepresented in sport documentaries. Many of these documentaries concentrate on individual athletes, and only a handful are about teams. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team (2005) is one of the most popular. It features player bios with the competition the team faced while trying to win games, fans, and financial support. Kick Like a Girl (2008) is also about a soccer team, but this time a girls’ team that competes in the boys’ division.

With this background in mind, I was excited to check out In the Game, directed by Maria Finitzo. In the Game (2015) follows players and supporters of the girls’ soccer team at Thomas Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Finitzo documented their stories for several years, checking in on players’ lives both during and after high school.

The team faces challenges both on and off the field. One of the biggest? No field for practice or play. The girls drill in the hallway and in the gym — cramped spaces compared to the expansive soccer field. A well shot and edited match against Curie Metropolitan High School shows the team’s abilities. More so, it demonstrates the strong bond among the players and their coach. It is this bond, not the competition or the win, that drives In the Game.

Coach Stan Mietus approaches soccer as a uniting force, not a dividing one. While some coaches develop their strongest players and cut the less skilled ones, Mietus refuses to cut anyone and allows everyone a chance to play. Instead of the girls competing for top roster spots, they support and encourage each other throughout practices and games. “Each girl, she should feel so important. Without her, the team cannot go on,” Mietus said.

The girls at Thomas Kelly High School — where 83 percent of students identify as Hispanic — face challenges off the field as well. The high school endures budget cuts. About 86 percent of the students come from poverty, and the girls try to balance their education and soccer with work and family expectations. They hope to attend college. Not all of them even have familial support for playing soccer.

But the team and their coach help the girls stay focused and motivated. Team captain Elizabeth credits them for changing her work ethic, while another captain, Maria, credits the team for her staying in school. For Alicia, playing soccer puts her in the zone — “Once I start playing, everything just kind of fades away.”

Getting an education is a theme that runs throughout In the Game. Encouraged by her mother, Elizabeth sees college as an opportunity for better employment and a better life. Maria wins a prize for her house design, and dreams of owning her own architectural firm someday. Alicia dreams of a career in sports medicine. But so many obstacles block their way, and not just financial ones. All three find their way to college, but struggle to remain there in the face of pressures from home, money, and even their immigration statuses.

These girls take the team’s ethos with them and use it as a touchstone in life after high school graduation. Now young women, they want to give back to their team and their coach. Members attend the wake when their coach’s child is stillborn. They throw a surprise birthday party for him. Elizabeth even dreams of sponsoring the team in the future.

The editing of In the Game allows these highs and lows to flow without forcing an unnatural climax to the film. It brings together individual stories while leaving room for institutional critique — a delicate balance to find and maintain, and it is done well here.

In the Game does end on one high note, however, with the breaking ground of the new Kelly Park, which will have soccer and football fields and offer amenities for other community activities.

Overall, In the Game is a great contribution to the documentaries about girls’ team sports. It shows the importance a team can have in girls’ lives and it shows the foundation a good team and coach can provide, but at the same it does so with a realistic eye toward how hard it can be for some to get, grow from, and build on this positive experience.