There’s something so unreal and ephemeral about carnivals that it’s almost strange to think about them in practical terms. They appear every year with their dependable variations on rides, games, prizes, and food, but how often do we stop to think about the people who piece the rides together, construct the booths, and keep an eye on things to make sure everyone stays safe and has fun? Maybe never?
Farewell Ferris Wheel takes us behind the scenes of the carnival world, where carnival owners rely on migrant workers to keep expenses in check. The H-2B seasonal guest worker visa allows migrant workers to enter the United States legally, but is the program helping or hurting? What are the broader repercussions for the economy?
It quickly becomes clear that there are no easy answers to these questions and that the H-2B visa could most accurately be described as a double-edged sword. Each year it allows Mexican migrant workers to visit the U.S. and earn money to send home to their families, money they often rely on for the rest of the year. It also allows carnivals to continue operating at a profit in the face of escalating costs and waning attendance. On the flip side, it gives carnival owners a pass to pay wages that would be unacceptable to American workers in working conditions that are far from ideal (or even fair).
Though the film takes a balanced approach to the topic, interviewing migrant workers, labor recruiters, labor advocates, and carnival owners, it’s hard not to notice the imbalance of power. Workers are expected to fall in line, perform their duties, and not rock the boat. In return, they are accommodated in cramped trailers, sometimes lacking adequate water or electricity. Payday can be delayed at the owner’s whim, and the wages themselves are grossly disproportionate to the hours worked. Still, owners lament the day their workers become “Americanized”, a term that can only signify the moment when these men realize they’re getting the short end of the stick.
Ultimately, Farewell Ferris Wheel shines a light on a never-ending cycle one might cynically call mutually exploitative. Migrant workers feel they must return to the United States in order to get by. Carnival owners insist that they couldn’t go on if they offered better wages and observed stricter regulations. In the end, you have to wonder if either side is really “making it’ at all.