Punch In / Out: Collectivisation
From 22 September - 13 October 2021, Invisible Women are teaming up with Femspectives to present punch in/out: iterations of labour, a season of online and IRL screenings exploring intersections between work, gender, class and race. Each week we will present a new programme of shorts, features and archive, curated to explore a different theme.
These notes have been written by Rachel Pronger (Invisible Women) to accompany our Week 4 (Oct 13-15) screening: Collectivisation.
To put it in other terms: women's most authentic act today--in all areas including the arts--consists not in standardizing and harmonizing the means, but rather in destroying them. Where women are true, they break things.
Helke Sander, Feminists and Film (1977)
At the end of Helke Sander’s Eine Prämie für Irene (A Bonus for Irene), a group of frustrated female workers in a washing machine factory rise up against their bosses, throwing objects at the security cameras through which their (male) bosses watch them. The destruction of the cameras is an act of rebellion that serves a cathartic narrative purpose, but it also carries a symbolic weight that extends beyond the fictional world of the film.
To smash a camera is a gesture of defiance in the face of the oppressive forces of capitalism, but it can also be interpreted more specifically as a critique of the act of filmmaking itself. Just as in our daily working lives CCTV cameras are used to monitor and contain our behaviour, so in our leisure lives movie cameras can be used as a means to monitor and contain our dreams and desires.
Filmmaking, for all it’s associated magic, is an industry, and like most industries it’s one with a woeful history when it comes to labour rights. Since the crystallisation of filmmaking into a viable commercial force at the beginning of the 20th century, mainstream movie-making has operated with as much ruthless efficiency as any production line. Like most industries, filmmaking has a history of sacrificing people in service of profits. And as is so often the case it has been those in society with the least power – women and people of colour in particular – who have been most frequently caught in its lethal machinery.
Helke Sander and Madeline Anderson are two filmmakers who upend the exploitative power dynamic of director and subject, instead harnessing the camera’s power as a force for change. Eine Prämie für Irene (1971) and I am Somebody (1970) explore how our experience of work in a capitalist society intersects with our identity. Sander’s film is a funny, furious drama exploring the reality of labour for a working class woman in West Germany. Anderson’s is a searing political documentary about a strike led by hospital workers in South Carolina, USA during a critical period for the civil rights movements. The two films were made only a year apart, and despite their different contexts they share much in the way of subject matter and perspective.
Anderson and Sander were working during a period of great upheaval and they channelled this atmosphere into their work. Sander was a renowned leader within the German women’s movement, whose prolific output was driven by her desire to make political films which could serve to further the feminist cause. Anderson had been making documentaries since the 1960s and used her then unusual position of power as a Black woman active in news reporting and documentary to make work that documented the struggle for civil rights.
It is unsurprising then, that both women would be driven to make films about collective action in the 1970s, a period in which all around the world worker’s protests, including many involving women in significant roles, were attracting media attention. See for instance, another contemporaneous documentary Barbara Kopple’s feature length Harlan County, USA (1976), which centred on protests led by coal miners and, significantly, their wives. By the end of the decade, even Hollywood was offering sympathetic portrayals of female trade unionism on screen, in the Oscar winning drama Norma Rae (1979).
In the UK, the decade was bookended by two significant female-led protests. The 1968 Dagenham Ford Plant strikes, led by sewing machinists, would contribute directly to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 while from 1976-1978, Jayaben Desai, an Indian-born migrant worker, led the biggest mobilisation in British labour movement history at the Grunwick film processing plant. While the former has already been re-told on film as Made in Dagenham, the Grunwick dispute has yet to be adapted into a plucky Brit drama – a shame, given that this story of how a group of migrant workers, most of whom were women of colour, managed to rally support from their white male counterparts across the country is a spectacular story of solidarity in the truest sense.
Although Eine Prämie and I am Somebody are very different films, both aim to stir the viewer into taking action. Watching the rebellious no-bullshit Irene and her friends take on their bosses is enough to inspire even the meekest worker to insurrection. Sander’s cheeky and outrageous workers are, initially at least, largely driven by self-interest and it’s only towards the end of the film that they begin to notice the overlaps between their individual hardships and a larger political awakening slowly begins to dawn.
The real-life workers at the heart of I am Somebody display a courage, dignity and political awareness that Irene and her colleagues never reach. Anderson’s focus on Black female workers - all but 12 of the 400 hospital and nursing home workers who led the strike she documents were Black women - gives the film additional resonance at a time when we are only just beginning to fully acknowledge how race, gender and class interact to disadvantage marginalised individuals in the workplace. As we come to terms with the aftermath of a pandemic which has disproportionately impacted communities of colour, the compelling real life story of resistance that Anderson tells feels especially important.
Collectivisation is the only form of struggle that stands a chance before the great might of money and power. There are no quick fixes, but we can find glimpses of hope when we see atomised gig economy workers finding ways to unionise, or arts workers risking their livelihoods to expose racism in their workplaces. Even the film industry, that shameless smoke and mirrors dream factory, has been slowly facing a reckoning over the past few years, sparked by the early successes of the #MeToo movement. As both Sander and Anderson acknowledge, collectivisation is not an easy route, and progress is often slow and faltering. Yet small victories, even victories we only see mediated through a screen, can be enough to give us the fuel we need to continue the fight. A raised fist. A smashed camera. A symbol of hope.