This article appeared in the August 10, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective, 1975)
Writers and actors are not typically thought of as “workers”—namely, people who exchange labor for a wage. Those in the culture industry “do what they love and love what they do,” as the neoliberal adage goes, which telegraphs the classist idea that “work” is something unlovable, undesirable, and, for members of the middle class, vaguely unseemly. But more recently, white- and pink-collar cultural workers at museums, cinemas, publishing houses, universities, and nonprofits have been joining historic unions like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Employees at HarperCollins, the University of California, the New School (where I am employed), the Museum of Modern Art, and Film at Lincoln Center, to name just a few institutions, are all represented by the UAW, and in the past several years have successfully unionized and won collective bargaining agreements.
This groundswell of organizing activity (which also includes workers at retail giants like Amazon and Starbucks, 340,000 UPS workers who narrowly averted a strike in July, and now 10,000 hotel workers in Los Angeles) has led to what organizers are calling a “hot labor summer.” Most visible at the moment is the double strike of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Both face the same threats: inadequate compensation from streaming platforms and the looming danger of unregulated use of artificial intelligence. The unions’ historic display of solidarity is effective: without writers to author new films and television shows, and without the talent to act in them, Hollywood production has effectively ground to a halt. Meanwhile, famous actors walk the picket line, a spectacle recapped in Us Weekly not unlike red-carpet coverage at an awards show.
I feel ambivalent about all this. Sometimes I’m hopeful that this struggle is radicalizing the film industry and will catalyze a mainstream leftist American cinema akin to what existed before and during the Hollywood blacklist—a cinema that generated films like Charlie Chaplin’s lacerating satire Modern Times (1936) and Herbert J. Biberman’s neorealist drama Salt of the Earth (1954). But in my more cynical moments, I don’t know that these sign-wielding celebrities amount to any more than Hollywood’s latest cause célèbre—which is to say, a self-involved concern antithetical to the spirit of solidarity within and beyond the film industry. I think of Harun Farocki’s remark from the text on his video Workers Leaving the Factory (1995): “Movie stars are important people in a feudal kind of way, and they are drawn to the world of the workers; their fate is similar to that of kings who get lost while out hunting and thus come to know what hunger is.”
So what does the cinema itself have to tell us about solidarity? There are many wonderful films about strikes—most obviously Sergei Eisenstein’s taut, textbook Strike (1925); Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Luc Godard’s Brechtian Tout va bien (1972); and Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), a harrowing document of striking coal miners. For a deeper cut, there’s Travis Wilkerson’s haunting An Injury to One (2002), an essay film about the unsolved murder of Wobblies organizer Frank Little in 1917 and the anti-labor forces that continue to wield power. Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory raids the history of cinema for its fascination with factories, and suggests that there is an intrinsic connection between film and the industrial world in which it emerged.
The most useful films for this moment, though, are the ones made in close connection with the workers on the front lines. Like other strike films, these lay out the terms of their strikes in clear and often moral terms, offering vivid descriptions of the miserable pay and mistreatment endured by workers, the electricity that begins a campaign, and the weariness that sets in as it deepens. But, because they integrate the activity of filmmaking with the concrete circumstances of the labor struggles they depict, they are also instructive. This is especially true for the ways in which they portray the difficulty, and utter necessity, of coming together. Beyond demonstrating the need for solidarity, they offer a kind of playbook for how it might be achieved.
The Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975) follows a group of workers who clean office buildings in the off-hours. All of them are mothers, because, as one woman explains, they could get a better-paying job, not to mention a full night’s rest, if they didn’t have to look after their children during the day. Sleep is precious and hard to come by. They don’t have to tell us they sleep little more than an hour a day; you can see it on their faces, especially when the image slows and flickers, zooming in on a woman’s bleary eyes. This perpetual fatigue is mirrored in the film’s edit, which intersperses glimpses of women vacuuming floors and scrubbing toilets with prolonged moments of darkness. On the soundtrack, too, snippets of voiceover and music abruptly interrupt the film’s predominant silence. The effect is that of drifting in and out of sleep: a jumble of impressions rather than clearly demarcated events. The challenge that the film stages, not only for British female cleaners in the early ’70s but for any worker, is the monumental struggle of gaining and maintaining consciousness, staying both metaphorically and, in this case, actually awake.
Bosses also use isolation, in addition to overwork, as a common union-busting tactic. The cleaners work on separate floors, and when they do share tasks, they are expressly told not to speak to one another. But persistence wins out. The cleaners, soon joined by members of the Women’s Liberation Workshop—a direct-action group that was part of the women’s liberation movement in the U.K. in the ’60s and ’70s—gather in a café, in a living room, at a street demonstration (where one holds a sign topped by a dust mop). And they talk a lot—sometimes over each other, making it impossible to understand what they’re saying. At other moments the sound cuts out and we’re watching the faces of the women as they listen intently to one another. The film seems to argue that organizing a union is an ongoing process, at times frustrating and incoherent, that must be constantly stretching to hear all its members’ concerns.
Early in the film, a cleaner skeptical of the union admits, “I believe in everything they said, but I don’t think it’s possible.” Much later, as if picking up on the same idea, another woman claims that for working-class folk like her, it’s difficult to imagine change because, she says, “I’ve never known another way of life.” In such disjunctions, the film’s distinctive formal strategy starts to make sense. Its abrupt silences provide room to hear the resonance among disparate voices, and its spaces of black are placeholders for a future to be filled in collectively. At times the image is noticeably rephotographed, as though the filmmakers were recording a projection of a film on a screen. When, in one such instance, a cleaner looks back at the camera from behind a window, this reinforces the viewer’s awareness that they are seeing an image of a struggle, and not the struggle firsthand. The film becomes a testing ground for solidarity because it offers a place where people can begin to imagine themselves, together.
The film, however, undermines its own politics because the filmmakers did not consult with their subjects on how they would be represented. As Marc Karlin, one of the members of the collective, recounts, “[t]he cleaners were never asked what kind of film they would like to be made.” The exclusion of the workers is especially disappointing in a film that otherwise insists that participation is necessary to politics. This is not the case in the Yugantar Film Collective’s Tobacco Embers (1982), about a strike organized by female tobacco-factory workers in Nipani, India. Unlike Nightcleaners, which documents a labor movement as it grows, the events depicted in Tobacco Embers had already occurred, and the feminist collective collaborated closely with the workers to reenact the story of their strike. The result is an astounding feat of orchestration. In the factories, the women, many of them elderly, pound and sift dried tobacco leaves in a synchronized rhythm, the air thick with dust. They sing as they work. Above the din, we hear matter-of-fact voiceover accounts of the bosses’ cruelty and sexual harassment. There’s rage, too—one woman describes how, if there were any other work to be found in the area, she would have long ago burned the factory down.
All the tools these women need for organizing are forged in the factory. They work, sing, and, during their sole daily break, take brief naps together on the packed-dirt floor. Tobacco Embers shows how each of the activities introduced in the film’s first half takes on new meaning in the second, after the women have declared their loyalty to each other and their new union. At their first meeting, they chatter excitedly and eat—things they can’t do on the job. Soon they gather in front of the factory where a group of workers, returning a few minutes late from lunch, have been locked out and forced to sit in the sun. The women call for all the tobacco workers in the area to come; more than 9,000 women arrive. They tear rotis and share water in cupped hands. For three days and nights they stay, later joined by their husbands and children. Then comes the victorious announcement from the union leader, his arms raised: “All our demands have been met! Five rupees a day! For an eight-hour workday!” But the fight drags on. The bosses continue to cheat their workers, and the union eventually decides to strike again. At the picket, one woman is issued a court summons for striking. She responds defiantly and with a grin, emboldened by her comrades crowded around her: “We will wipe our kids’ asses with it.” The film concludes with the women still discussing strategy, even after the image has cut to black.
Nightcleaners was roundly rejected by feminist groups at the time of its release, in part because of its formal opacity, but also, I think, because the filmmakers failed to engage the subjects in the process of filmmaking. This is a shame, because the film’s structure of bridging gaps of silence and darkness is potentially very useful for imagining how solidarity can be forged. Tobacco Embers, meanwhile, met with the opposite reception. It was embraced by the Autonomous Women’s Movement of the ’80s in India, and screened widely as a tool for mobilizing women and laborers; during production, the filmmakers even rented a local theater to show rushes to the workers. The story of its making shows how a film can link arms with a workers’ struggle to effect real and meaningful change.
What will a film made about the contemporary labor movement look like? I know of at least one currently in the works, co-directed by documentarian and geographer Brett Story (whose incisive 2016 film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, is essential viewing), about the workers who organized an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. I can only hope that, beyond detailing the grievances that sparked this hot labor summer, the cinema that emerges from these ongoing strikes will strengthen the bonds of solidarity needed for a struggle that, for many, is nothing short of existential.
Genevieve Yue is an associate professor of culture and media at the New School and the author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).