May 25, 2018
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Filmmaker gives voice to 19th century women

By Dylan Riley Special to the News, Special to the BDN

The life of 19th century female factory workers in Maine and the conditions they faced on and off the job is the subject of a documentary the Maine Public Broadcasting Network will show on June 5 and 6.

The film, “Hard Work,” brings voice to the life of hundreds of women — mostly textile workers — who gave their opinion of working conditions in the 1880s and 1890s as answers to a Maine State Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics questionnaire.

Jim Sharkey, a Westbrook High School teacher from Brunswick, produced the film in 2004 in collaboration with University of Maine professor Carol Toner.

Toner said she had produced a theater production based on the women’s writings, which friends of hers performed around the state. She based the production on an old copy of the Bureau questionnaire and research she conducted. When she met Sharkey about seven years ago, he read the 19th century questionnaire and the script for the production and liked it.

“Sharkey thought this material would make a good film. What we didn’t have was pictures,” Toner said.

Sharkey set out to on a mission to find visuals, and then enlisted the aid of eight female UMaine faculty and staff to read the 19th century women’s writings for the film. He also interviewed Toner — who specializes in Maine Studies at UMaine — for the film. The movie uses historical photos, videos from today’s factories and interviews to tell its story.

“We adapted it for video, but basically I just used what [Toner] had already done,” Sharkey said Thursday.

The film took eight months to produce, according to Sharkey. He said the UMaine women who lent their voices each read the words of the female factory workers, and then he picked the recordings that he felt best represented the workers.

“It was an interesting topic and one which I thought I could make a documentary out of. It was also a little different to the other things I had done since it required so many still photographs, historical research and the like,” Sharkey wrote on his website,

MPBN will broadcast “Hard Work” at 11 a.m. June 5 and 11:30 p.m. June 6. Sharkey is already working on his next project, a documentary on the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, a theater company in Portland.

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