In union circles, the story is already legendary: lady trucker joins the Teamsters, the largest, most powerful—and rotten— trade union on the planet. She decides to fight the corrupt union brass, despite profound personal tragedy and repeated threats against her life. In 1991, against all odds, she is elected to the Teamsters’ international executive board, the first woman to win such a post. TV is made for heroic tales like this, and Diana Kilmury: Teamster, airing on March 17 on the CBC, is a compelling, factbased drama that practically vibrates with Kilmury’s raw personal courage and determination. But director Sturla Gunnarsson (The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Final Offer) has avoided the temptation to create an icon. B.C.-born actor Barbara Williams delivers a terrific performance that reveals Kilmury for what she is: a straight-talking, tough-minded woman who gives as good as she gets. When a hostile Teamster threatens to tinker with the brakes on Kilmury’s gigantic dump truck, she turns on him with Amazonian fury. “You mess with my machine,” she snarls, “and you’ll have a scar that goes well below your belt.”
Although she was born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, where she still lives,
Kilmury, 49, is better known in the United States than in Canada. This production, written by a team including film-maker Anne Wheeler, may help rectify that. Even before the action moves to the hurly-burly of union politics, Kilmury commands respect—from the early shots of the character working on a dangerous construction site to homey moments of mother-son domesticity.
Later, when a recently elected union reformer needs money to battle the entrenched leaders, she is the first to toss her $100 into a hat. “If he’s nobody, we’re nobody,” she says curtly as she strides from a roomful of silent, stunned men.
And therein lies the principal strength of the production. Kilmury, a doctor’s daughter who left home at 14 because of her father’s ferocious beatings, is an eloquent speaker with a talent for recounting dramatic events in unembellished detail. The film-makers interviewed her extensively and used her words for Williams’s voice-overs. Kilmury demolishes Teamster bosses and inspires her reform-minded colleagues. And there
The story of Teamster Diana Kilmury is great drama
are a few ironic asides on romance. At various times, she dated an ironworker, an operating engineer and a pipefitter. “For awhile, I thought I’d work my way through the entire building trades,” she says wryly.
The most powerful sequence is at the core of both the film and Kilmury’s life. In 1978, while driving home for Christmas through a snowstorm, Kilmury and her son, Sean, then 9, were horribly injured after they smashed into a tow truck on a blind corner. One of Kilmury’s legs was shattered, and Sean suffered permanent brain damage. The hospital scenes in which Sean moans and flails in agony are wrenching— and mercifully brief. Unbelievably, union officials decided to punish Kilmury for her reformist activities by refusing to pay longterm disability benefits. In the film, Kilmury calls it the “most evil assault on my wellbeing, ever,” and it is clear that it marked a turning point. “I swear, I will not rest,” she says later through gritted teeth, “until I see every officer responsible removed, permanently.” And when, after 13 more years of relentless work with the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, she pulls off the near impossible by taking a seat on the executive board of the 1.5-millionmember union (a position she still holds), her exhilaration is infectious. Reflecting on how it felt to enter the famous marbletrimmed Teamster headquarters in Washington, Kilmury sums it up with characteristic pithiness: “My God, we did this,” she says. “We own the joint.”
Diana Kilmury: Teamster is an unusually successful blending of the public and private aspects of one turbulent life. But Gunnarsson says the process of weaving the two together was not easy. Kilmury’s experiences during the period of the film, 1978 to 1992, unfold against the backdrop of a racketeering suit launched by the U.S. government against Teamster officials. But rather than focus on the complexity of the legal wrangling and union politics, Gunnarsson sticks to Kilmury’s point of view. ‘We tried to construct it as a personal journey—it’s a 14-year road trip,” he says.
That decision presented its own problems. Kilmury describes herself as “intensely private,” and both she and Gunnarsson admit that they battled over the inclusion of some personal details. But Gunnarsson emphasizes that he retained full editorial control. He is less sure, however, about what to call the blend of fact and dramatized history that has become his trademark. “Distilled realism?” he suggests. Whatever the label, in this case the technique has created a tale of extraordinary commitment to political change. And its portrayal of a hard-headed single mother gives heroism a new—and unforgettable—face.
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