In their film, “The Red Tail” – available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms – filmmakers Dawn Mikkelson & Melissa Koch follow an aircraft mechanic as he travels to China to see who took his outsourced job.
“The Red Tail”
Producers/Directors: Melissa Koch, Dawn Mikkelson
Executive Producer: Dawn Mikkelson
Associate Producers: Beth Wilson, Chris Waller
The full film, “The Red Tail” is available free on
SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Melissa & Dawn is part of a new series of SnagFilm filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE. [Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of Indiewire.]
Your film in 140 characters or less?
As 4,400 aircraft mechanics strike, one of them, Roy Koch, follows his outsourced job to China to find who replaced him.
Okay, give us some more…
In 2005 Roy Koch, along with 4,400 airline mechanics, custodians, and cleaners, went on strike against Northwest Airlines, the fourth largest airline in the world. Northwest (“The Red Tail”), wanted to lay off 53% of their union and outsource their jobs. After a 444-day strike, 4,000 union members were out of work, including Roy.
Refusing to be victims of our global economy, Roy and his daughter Melissa (co-director, The Red Tail) set on a journey to meet the worker to whom Roy’s job was outsourced in China. The journey provides a renewed sense of purpose for Roy. The film interweaves Roy and Melissa’s search for connection in China with the premeditated downfall of Northwest Airlines. This downfall serves as a vibrant example of the dangers of our current economic system, casting a spotlight on the future of the working class.
“The Red Tail” is largely about solidarity in it’s broadest definition; the potential for global solidarity among workers, solidarity within a workers union, and the solidarity between a father and a daughter.
Melissa, what motivates you as a filmmaker?
I make movies because telling visual stories about social realities allows me to unite my passions for art making and social justice. I create documentary films about the human condition, from the lesser-known points of view, with the hope that my work contributes to positive change in the world.
My work has been featured in the Galway Film Fleadh, Ireland, DOK Leipzig Market, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Sheffield Doc/Fest Videotheque, Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, DocuFest Atlanta and Reel Work May Day Labor Film Festival. I received a BA from the University of Minnesota in Media Arts and am pursuing a Masters in Social Documentation from the University of California, Santa Cruz where I currently reside.
And you, Dawn?
I make movies because I believe that it is through sharing our personal stories and experiences that we can change the way we view one another. Documentary film has the unique ability to introduce us to people we otherwise would never get to meet and get to know them as individuals with feelings and dreams much like our own. That can change the world.
I have completed four feature documentaries which illuminate global issues while creating understanding through the intimate stories of individuals including: Green Green Water, THIS obedience, and Treading Water: a documentary. My work has been seen on PBS, OUTtv, and Free Speech TV, and has screened at numerous international festivals including IDFA and Cambridge Film Festival. Learn more here www.emergencepictures.com
Where did this film come from?
Melissa: Although there were several roots of inspiration for me in making “The Red Tail”, the most powerful and sustaining of them was witnessing the courage and resolve my Dad the rest of the striking mechanics had when standing up to corporate greed. I wondered – How can people show meaningful solidarity with each other through these difficult times, both within our own families and communities, and with workers globally? How can someone like my father, or the mechanics in Hong Kong and China participate in decisions about the future of our world? I was inspired to make The Red Tail in a search to answer these questions.
Dawn: Early on, this film was about the future of the middle/working classes, very intellectual. As I got to know Melissa, Roy, Susan, Sara, and the dozens of airline mechanics put their futures on the line for a shred of dignity, this was about people that I loved. People whose story was painfully ignored by a mainstream media focused on the flying public (who, God forbid, might have to fly another airline) and a “poor company” struggling with the high cost of jet fuel. The media ignored the years of corporate mismanagement of NWA and its betrayal of its employees, their families, and the taxpayers that propped the company up to keep the jobs in the U.S.
What were the challenges in making this film?
Money. It is difficult to fund travel to China for a film that is critical of the very institutions that could fund its production: the airline industry, unions, and those who benefit from our current economic system. Those who really wanted this film made were folks who couldn’t afford to donate big cash to a documentary film project, when their homes were being foreclosed. That said, this challenge became one of our strengths in that we were in a position of grassroots organizing to raise small cash from countless donors, both through events and online. These people were also the ones who helped us find creative ways to travel including traveling on “buddy passes” from another major airline through supportive pilots and staying in someone’s family apartment in Hong Kong, recently vacated when a grandparent had passed away.
These same grassroots donors then packed the theater at our local screenings, which was incredibly moving. Former airline mechanics who used to work side-by-side and are now scattered to the wind, hugging one another, pleased and validated that their story was finally being told.
What will Snag audiences gain from “The Red Tail”
What strikes me and I believe will strike viewers as well is how this film’s message becomes more and more relevant as time passes. As I watch the Occupy Wall Street movement sweep the nation and the globe, I hear the message of The Red Tail. The Red Tail really is an intimate and personal portrait of the time that we live in and a call for the voice of the people to be present in our global economy. We are no longer willing to be pawns in the giant chess game of large corporations and their friends in government.
Were any other films particularly inspirational when making “The Red Tail”?
Melissa: I didn’t consciously have films in mind that I was drawing from for inspiration. However, I do remember watching American Dream and Blue Vinyl sometime during the filmmaking process and finding connections in themes and structure. Additionally, the storytelling devices of many “road trip” films (documentary and narrative) influenced how we put together The Red Tail.
Dawn: As much as I hate to admit it, I think that Roger and Me was a subconscious inspiration. I’ve avoided that comparison for a long time, because unlike Michael Moore, we aren’t looking for one man to be accountable (although we do take issue with the last CEO of NWA, Doug Steenland), but to create a larger dialogue that would lead to systemic change. There will always be another Doug Steenland, Roger Smith, or Kenneth Lay if we don’t change the system that fosters their brand of “leadership”.
What’s up next?
Melissa: I am currently in post-production on a film about the unconventional and complex family of one queer teenager who is struggling to finish high school in the face of homelessness. The film will be completed in June 2012.
Dawn: SMOOCH (www.smoochdocumentary.com), a global documentary and online forgiveness initiative which profiles individuals who have found the humanity in the very persons they thought they could never forgive. We start with the story of Mary and Oshea in Minneapolis. Oshea killed Mary’s son 17 years ago and today they have not only reconciled, but Mary serves as Oshea’s second mom. Their story and the trailer for SMOOCH have been profiled on ABC, CBS, NPR, and have won the Possible Futures Film Contest (www.possiblefuturesfilmcontest.org).