Hooker Furniture Corp. closed its last case-goods furniture factory in Martinsville in March 2007, putting about 280 employees out of work. The event was hardly unique to Southern Virginia, which has seen a variety of factories shuttered over the past decade.
But thanks to Matthew Barr, the closing of this plant is different. An associate professor of broadcasting and cinema at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Barr specializes in making films that tell the stories of working communities in transition. His latest documentary, “With These Hands: The Story of an American Furniture Factory,” portrays the last days of the Martinsville plant.
The film will be shown to the general public for the first time in Martinsville on Jan. 17 and then it will hit the regional film festival circuit. Barr hopes that it will be picked up by PBS. Current and past employees of Hooker Furniture got an advance screening of the film in November at Patrick Henry Community College. Hooker Furniture remains in business, making high-end upholstered furniture.
Barr notes that events broke in the project’s favor from the start. “The first day of filming just happened to be the day that the last load of wood arrived to go into the factory,” he says.
The film includes interviews with nearly a dozen workers and Clyde Hooker Jr., who ran the company for over a half century. Hooker, 88, remembers blowing the plant’s steam whistle as a child when it opened in 1924. Also interviewed are experts discussing manufacturing trends and the effects of globalization. “So we were able to follow that load of wood through the manufacturing process and along the way got the workers’ perspective of what it was like to work there, what the work meant to them and what it was like to go through losing that work,” says Barr.
He hopes that the film honors the factory’s last employees, as well as previous generations who worked there. Most of the workers remain loyal to Hooker Furniture, recognizing that the factory’s demise was the result of factors well beyond the control of the company’s management.
“Working at that factory was more than a job, it was a community, a way of life,” Barr says. “So in the end, there was no bitterness towards the company, just sadness over what was lost.”
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