Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film Roma was more than just a movie. For many in real life who could relate to the main character, Cleo, an indigenous woman employed as a live-in domestic worker in Mexico, it was the first time their lives, their work, and their struggles were made visible.
Roma came out in 2018, but it’s still having an effect on the lives of domestic workers today, thanks in part to Participant, a film production company that combines art and activism to inspire social change. “We like to say there’s a fourth act to our movies, which is the impact,” says Participant CEO David Linde. Working with advocacy organizations including the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar (The Center for Support and Training for Household Employees), Participant carried out a campaign to try to create real social impact as part of the reaction to the film, extending the movie into real life and helping secure protections for domestic workers in the U.S. and Mexico.
The campaign—the winner of the media and entertainment category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—worked in two parts: first, by raising awareness of domestic workers, their value, and their lack of benefits, and second by publicizing programs that can bolster the economic security of these workers, who are often excluded from labor laws and social security programs. For the 67 million domestic workers around the world—80% of whom are women—that often means no paid time off or other basic labor protections.
With its partners in the U.S. and Mexico, Participant created video campaigns to support Alia, a platform created by NDWA to bring benefits to domestic workers, and a domestic worker social security pilot program in Mexico. After that increased visibility, Mexico’s Congress passed legislation in May 2019 to support the rights of domestic workers, including protection from workplace discrimination, paid vacation, holiday bonuses, and social security.
That legislation in Mexico didn’t pop up overnight because of the film. Marcelina Bautista, a domestic worker turned activist and director of CACEH, had been lobbying for those protections for 10 years, Linde says. What Roma and Participant’s work did was put a bigger spotlight on the issue.
“In order for that legislation to be passed, people had to truly understand that domestic workers are [what] keep us living. They keep our families healthy, they keep our families fed, they take care of our parents, they take our children to school. They are the connective tissue, a tissue that allows us to live the lives that we want to live,” Linde says. “That is perfectly manifested in this movie. So if you’re a senator in Mexico and you see a movie that an entire nation was embracing, that’s pretty hard to ignore.”
Participant helped support work NDWA has long been doing in the U.S. too, as with Alia, which allows people who employ domestic workers to make monetary contributions to their Alia account, which the workers can then use toward paid time off, disability insurance, or other benefits. Alia had been in the works before Roma premiered, but the film helped garner attention. During the month of the campaign, the Participant video, created in partnership with SoulPancake, sent more than 10,000 new visitors to the Alia site compared to the previous month, and page views more than doubled.
And that work is still ongoing. During the coronavirus crisis, when domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to economic hardship, Participant is working to direct people to the Alia program but also to NDWA more broadly, to generally support their work at this time, as their members are at risk of both becoming sick and losing their incomes.
All this was sparked from the moment Linde read the Roma screenplay—before the cast even had. He knew this film would be important, and when he saw Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo, he knew it could make a big difference. “You couldn’t help but to embrace who she was as a character, and that’s often central to any successful impact campaign, making that personal connection,” he says. Participant is continuing to work on creating these kinds of fourth acts, and he hopes others follow, because these kinds of films are being seen by so many people.
“One of the things that Alfonso [Cuarón] says which I find particularly poignant is, ‘Roma‘s on the shelf, it’s in the library right now, but it’s living on through the impact work,’ and I think that’s a great way to contextualize what it is we’re trying to accomplish,” Linde says. “All this great energy and impact that a film or a TV series can create, can actually then live on.”