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by Joanne McNeil

Invisible on the Interstate: Joanne McNeil on Amy Reid’s Long Haulers

Truck driver Tracy in Amy Reid's Long Haulers, courtesy of the filmmaker

“Everything in your house has, at one time, been moved on a truck,” says one of the truckers featured in Long Haulers. Amy Reid’s film subtly demystifies what can be a uniquely alienating form of labor, and the film itself has recently emerged from relative invisibility.

The titular vehicles are typically driven by men. Reid’s debut documentary follows the lives of three women who are among the nearly seven percent of long haul truckers working in the United States. Completed in 2020, Long Haulers might have then seemed incredibly timely given the global supply chain crisis, which was among the dominoes toppling after the pandemic. From the Ever Given, stuck in the Suez Canal for six days, to the empty shelves in supermarkets where there should have been infant formula, the modern supply chain had never before reached this level of public attention. When everything works according to its globalist logic, the system is largely invisible to the public. But disruptions like COVID make clear that at every node of production and in distribution flows there are workers like the women in Reid’s documentary. 

Despite the growing relevance of her film’s subject matter, Reid didn’t have much luck placing Long Haulers in film festivals. Discouraged by the rejections, the Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz threw her energy into her studies, including a new film project. That was until last year, when she thought, “I can’t just leave this project on my hard drive,” as she recounted to me. To “resuscitate” the film, Reid began cold calling microcinemas and organizations like the Los Angeles Filmforum, which hosted a screening at 2220 Arts + Archives in July 2023.

Trucking is often romanticized in films like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way but Loose, and the power of Long Haulers is in the new perspectives it brings. By turning her lens on middle-aged and older women in the industry, Reid complicates lingering notions of the vocation as gateway for adventure. 

The women in Long Haulers directly experience contradictions in how the public assesses the service they provide. American consumers expect goods to be delivered quickly for the convenience, but out in the world, a truck is to them yet another one of life’s inconveniences. “Nobody wants to let us go forward,” says Lori, one of the truckers profiled in the film. Car drivers are rarely generous about sharing the road with the people steering 18-wheelers. “Nobody wants to let us go first, but they want their stuff. They want their shoes, and they want their hairspray. But they want us to go last.”

Reid captures the solitary routines of these three truck drivers with unforced warmth and curiosity, their days and nights of quiet joys and hardships. Behind an Arby’s, at a desolate rest stop at night, fireworks crackle and burst through the dark sky. It must be the Fourth of July or another celebration that the trucker isn’t partaking in that evening. Tracy listens to romance audio books to pass the hours as she drives. Lori, who spent time in prison, listens to Joel Osteen prosperity gospel sermons, which, with the swindle in his words self-evident, is documented in the film without added judgment. She stretches and jogs around an empty truck stop for intervals of exercise. Sandi—in her seventies, the oldest of the drivers featured in the film—travels across the country with a little dog to keep her company. American freight leaves one place and ends up somewhere else, and the in-between moments are like the ones in the film; women on their own, far from home, going about their working lives.

Some of the strongest scenes in Long Haulers reveal how these truck drivers themselves conceive of the global supply chain. “It’s a completely different world today than what I’d grown up in,” says Sandi. Her family raised their own cows and butchered their own beef, sometimes serving food with their neighbors. They knew what the cows they raised had eaten. It all happened locally. Now, cattle are moved between intermediaries until “the trucks go in and bring [the cattle] to plants like Cargill.” She works for Cargill, “hauling 42,000 pounds of beef” processed from some place where everyone is a stranger to her. “It’s going to a distribution center to be put out in stores for people that I don’t have any idea who they are—never will meet or know them—to purchase to feed their families.”

After completing the film in 2020, while sheltering in place with her sister, Reid caught up with the truckers she filmed. Sandi told her that not much about their life in the truck had changed. They were already working in a job that involved limited contact with other people. It was so-called essential work, as the media valorized it early in the pandemic (but only temporarily).

The solitude on the job sometimes looks like freedom. As Tracy puts it in Long Haulers, people who become truckers are “either running to something or running away from something.” Reid, who grew up working class, wonders whether this solitude might be why these three women were welcoming to her. She followed them along on their routes, sometimes sleeping in the berths. When she began the project, she had expected greater difficulty in finding truckers willing to appear on camera. 

The women in the film express nostalgia for the trucking industry of the past, which had more robust unions and better pay. Trucking has continued to change—for the worse—with the introduction of electronic logging devices (ELDs), which monitor driving time and a driver’s adherence to the speed limit, in addition to various specialized data collection and tracking features. Long Haulers was shot largely before the federal mandate that ELDs be installed in all trucks, which went into effect in December 2017. While this surveillance technology alleges to be a safety measure, one of the consequences, explored in Karen Levy’s 2023 book, Data Driven, is the risk of more accidents. Drivers can feel pressured to work in perilous conditions, from unsafe weather to lack of sleep, due to inflexible time constraints from ELDs.

But even in what appeared to be the glory days of the trucking industry, freedom for these workers has always been illusionary. A truck is just too cumbersome. “There’s limited freedom when it comes to being a trucker. You can’t take your 18-wheeler down a local main street, necessarily. Even on certain highways, there are restrictions,” Reid told me. “You’re confined by the truck.”

At least in this film, which deserves a wider audience, three women who do this work are finally seen.

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