Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

"The Berwick Street Collective did not set out to make a by-the-numbers film and instead crafted a documentary that is experimental in form, and that strives to get at deeper truths about gender and labour inequalities." | Photo: Nightcleaners

A tribute to gender solidarity and the power of collective action, Nightcleaners observes a specific campaign for unionisation coalesce with an instance of 1970s feminist activism. Between 1970-1972, the women who cleaned office blocks at night in London were encouraged by former cleaner May Hobbs - assisted by members of the Women's Liberation Movement - to unionise and fight for better pay and working conditions. Focusing on the cleaners in the Shell building, the Berwick Street Collective (which consisted of filmmakers Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott, and Humphrey Trevelyan) captured the precarity and monotony of this physically demanding - but usually unnoticed - work, while also taking a meditative and decidedly abstract approach in order to highlight the social structures and forces that were keeping the women in this position.

Besides economic necessity, nearly all of the women had taken on night work because they had school age children and could not afford childcare - lack of sleep is a recurring topic of conversation and the sheer exhaustion caused by this routine drudgery is etched on their faces. The repeated close-ups of the women's eyes (with the footage often also slowed down) not only illustrate the physical toll of this labour - and create instances of abstract beauty - but are also indicative the filmmakers' genuine and empathetic curiosity in the lives of these women and what they were thinking. What the film subtly captured was effectively the start of political consciousness in this group of women - the dawning awareness that the life they were living was not the only option open to them, even when hoping for anything else had initially seemed like "asking for the moon".

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Organising them was not easy - they were spread out across different locations and spent little time together as a group while at work. But we witness May gradually overcoming their doubts and insecurities, and planting a seed that takes root. What germinates is their sense of dignity and self-worth - a belief that their work is worth more than the value that the bosses place on it - and a depiction of unity and solidarity between women. The latter point is key because after putting in significant effort to get the women to join the union, they found that the male-dominated union wasn't much interested in their plight. The male union reps who deign to meet the women are shown talking over them and being dismissive - but the Women's Liberation members (who were trying to combine feminist and socialist principles through action) stuck around to support May and the cleaners in their fight.

Shot in a grainy black and white, much of Nightcleaners takes place at night with the artificial lights of the office buildings giving the images of the cleaners vacuuming, dusting, and scrubbing a ghostly tint. Likewise recurring shots of the women filmed through windows as they work (as they would be seen to people passing by in the streets outside), frame them in such a way as to call attention to women's looked-at-ness - and it seems important that all of the women notice that they're being watched and overtly return the gaze - while at the same time often rendering them phantasmal due to the other reflections in the glass. They are there but not there, undeniably present but simultaneously invisible.

Nightcleaners screened in support of International Women's Day at the AV Festival 2016 as part of its Resistance: British Documentary Film strand. To judge it as a campaign film in the traditional sense is to fail to view the film on its own terms. The Berwick Street Collective did not set out to make a by-the-numbers film and instead crafted a documentary that is experimental in form, and that strives to get at deeper truths about gender and labour inequalities by using its unusual form and construction to reveal - and make connections between - things that might otherwise go unnoticed. As part of that, the film encourages introspection on the part of the viewer by repeatedly cutting to black and holding it, as if to give the audience time to ruminate on what is unfolding before them - just as the women are also shown taking new ideas on board.

The film has the subtitle 'Part 1'. Although it closes without revealing whether the women were successful - and 'Part 2' was never made - Nightcleaners nonetheless left this viewer feeling that these women would continue to stand up for themselves and that they would do so together. Recommended.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2016
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A documentary about the campaign to unionise underpaid and victimised women who clean office blocks at night.

Director: Marc Karlin, James Scott

Year: 1975

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


AV Festival 2016

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