A Bonus For Irene

A Bonus For Irene is a short film set in a factory in West Germany in 1971. The drama focuses on Irene, a divorced, single mother working in a dishwasher appliance factory. She is pissed off.

The factory is roasting, the wages are shit, and they call upon them for overtime like they should just be grateful to work. Irene doesn’t miss ye and hit the wall, she tells the bosses exactly what she thinks of the situation. For her tongue, she loses her bonus.

She goes home to her flat, and her neighbours complain of the noise her weans are making through the paper-thin walls. She gives them a right dressing down in the close, and encourages them all to demand the landlord put in proper soundproofing. Needless to say, her rent goes up.

She goes out for a walk one night, and as she sees a group of men up ahead, she gets out her keys. Ah! What race memory is that tells all women to put their keys between their knuckles? How many times have I done this, that this woman, closer to my grandmother’s age, in a entirely different country, knows to do it too?

When she stops by a bar for a drink after work on her own, and she rejects a man’s offer to buy one for her, she’s called a hard-nosed bitch. It’s depressing how identifiable this experience is 50 years on. She chucks her pint in the guy’s face and storms out.

For all the grainy footage, and stilted dialogue that’s very much of its time, the actual story of A Bonus For Irene is one clearly recognisable to working women today. The sense of frustration that she can work all day making dishwashers, and never afford to buy one. The sense of constantly snapping at people who are more or less in the same situation as you, while finding it difficult to reach those you want to hold accountable. The urge to turn rallying cries into tangible and effective action, but being at a loss at where to start.

Set up as a kitchen-sink drama, but speaks to universal and timeless issues.

I Am Somebody

I Am Somebody is a short film documentary covering the 1970 strike of hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina. Initially just 400 black women went on strike for equal pay to their white colleagues, a raise in their wage of $1.30 an hour, and an end to derogatory comments made about their sex and race. Soon joined across the nation by other unions and different chapters, the SCLC and civil rights activists, and student protestors. After 113 days on strike, they cost the city millions in a consumer boycott and lost labour, and were given concessions addressing their wage, equality, and dignified treatment.

It really is inspiring to see, watching everyone chip in to support each other. It starts small, with a group of people who have been told they are the lowest of the low, whose labour and dignity is worthless. And by the end the kids are out of strike from school, £100,000 has been raised by their union’s New York chapter to support them, and Coretta Scott King is flying in to give rallying speeches.

What’s really heartening is to watch the white, jowlly Governor state that marches and demonstrations have never had any influence on state policy, and never could influence state policy. That state policy has only ever changed due to considerations by those in authority. Ha! It’s like when they say, “If it changed anything, they wouldn’t let you do it”. Well, they try like hell to keep them from doing it. For something they’re not scared of, they sure bring an awful lot of tear gas, guns, and busloads of arrestees to jail.

I liked this because, in this day and age where Dr King’s image is adopted as some mascot of mild and unobtrusive consensus-building around racial equality, its important to remind people of the reality of his activism, which was radical wealth redistribution, anti-militarism, and anti-capitalist activity that would still see him vilified today. Strikes and boycotts are things they still make as illegal as they can.

While Charleston will have statue after statue of slaveholder after slaveholder, I guarantee you there is no statue of the Black hospital workers who gained such a victory against all the odds. I Am Somebody is a chance to see some of the faces, and the overwhelming crowds, who made history.

Made in Bangladesh

Made in Bangladesh is a drama about a woman’s struggle to set up a union in a garment factory.

It begins with a co-worker perishing in a workplace fire, obviously taking from real events like the 2012 factory fire disaster in Dhaka. Shimu and her friends feel distraught but helpless. When Shimu is contacted by a local workers’ rights group, she tries to set up a union. But it’s not easy, she needs to get the signatures of 30% of the factory workers, and they have to do so in secret, in fear of management. The whole film follows all the difficulties in just getting to the starting line, just to begin the union to start to fight. From corrupt civil servants, to sexually exploitative managers, to a lack of support at home for fear of the attention it will attract, Shimu and her friends must battle it all.

Made in Bangladesh is a great film, showing ordinary working class women, especially women of colour in a post-colonial-exploitation country, as key agents of their own success in their own stories. This is not a film split into the done-to and the doers, the women are active in solving the issue of their own oppression.

It’s also another great film about the importance of speaking up for your own worth. In one sense, nothing is changed by the end of the film for Shimu, she’s only getting the start of setting up this catalyst for change, but SHE has changed. She goes from feeling powerless, afraid and cowed, to daring, commanding, and insistent on her own rights. This transformation is the real revolution, the thing that those above fear from those below. Because there is a difference in being silenced and remaining silent. It fundamentally changes Shimu to believe in the worth of her own labour, own voice, own self.

Such a satisfying watch.

To Be A Woman

To Be A Woman is a short film from the 1950s. It open with that plummy voice, “What of the woman of today? What does she want in the 1950s?” The Pathe News male voice puts forth these questions against an RP female voice setting forth the arguments for equal pay.

You’d think this would be amusing to watch. That outdated method of addressing the viewer directly with authoritative dictates in ‘British Empire’ voice, watching people trip about in black-and-white in clothing from a bygone era, arguing over a won debate. But it’s not. Not least because it isn’t a won debate. People are happy to let the legislation state equal pay for equal work, even if every year every study shows women earning less for similar work performed by men. And women continue to be underrepresented in positions of power in every sector. In fact, it’s a little withering to see, an entire generation on, how identifiable our grandmothers’ issues are with our own.

The truly lovely thing to see is women being called out by name, and highlighted as the first woman to sit on a coal board, the first woman to lead a mixed-gender union, a painter, a composer, a nurse, a pilot, a head teacher, a typist, a machinist, a factory worker. Despite how history will only spit out a few names, as if these exceptional women moved the world on their own, the world was moved by every woman who kicked open a door that was closed to her. Each in their own corner became the first, so no other woman would have to be.

And it’s amazing how much that is said in this would still sound radical today. That the vote was won to materially improve the rights of working women, and those elected on it must be held accountable for this, that workers’ rights are human rights. In 2021 you could post that on Twitter and still get a spewing torrent of resistance and condemnation.

Watching it 70 years on, it may seem a little depressing how familiar the issues are, but it’s also a good reminder, that there have always been women fighting for acknowledgement of their equal humanity, and we have a long tradition to follow in.

The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid is a film about Eve, an indigenous worker in a luxury hotel in Mexico. The film is shot from entirely within the hotel. It is as though the director wants to see if you can tell the story of someone’s full humanity through the keyhole of their work. Because work is where you come to deny your humanity, dehumanise and mechanise yourself. And this is doubly so for women in customer service who must never get frustrated or angry, seem tired or resentful, or express need and desire.

Much of the film is dialogueless, with Eve running between rooms to get her floor finished on time. You watch her smooth down comforters with a broom handle, fold toilet paper, spin lampshades round for a dusting. It gives you time to see what you never normally see, the hidden skill and strain of work which leaves behind a perfectly pressed capsule of comfort.

The little time to herself you see Eve have is usually hiding in the toilet – which identify! God knows what it’s like to be like, “I’m sitting in here pretending I’m taking a half-hour long shit. I don’t care if they think I have a bowel condition. I need a fucking break.” She plays on her phone, texts home, and just takes time to breathe.

She calls home near the end of her shift to announce she is on her way to pick up her kid, or to hear his voice if she’s pulling a double. Her home life is unseen, as it is meant to be in a place of work. This means that the film shows her performing all these tasks for others, but the thing which is most important to her is given no space.

Eve is remarked on by a number of characters as shy. Her reserve is one of her most valuable skills as she is able to handle almost any customer interaction without betraying any emotion. Yet is she really shy or does her job just provide no outlet for expression of her inner self? We get glimpses of more as the film goes on, passion in flirtations with a window cleaner, and rage in frustrations when thwarted.

And the strange dislocation of being entirely focused on the customer experience without ever coming into contact with them, brings up the necessary element of human interaction. When people talk about a rewarding job, how is that formulated when the better you do your job, the less likely your customers will think of your existence at all? And what about the humanising effect inherent in human interaction, the basic acknowledgement of your existence that comes with visibility, a cardinal sin for ‘the help’?

Eve does manage to find little interactions with her customers, or on a more basic level, the people round about her. The Japanese photographer whose books and photos she leafs through, whose strange sweeties she takes, and who leaves his room completely tidy, bed stripped and folded, with a flower as appreciation for her. There is a dialogue even without meeting, in the way that they leave the room for her and she leaves the room for them.

A film that manages to stay engaging despite documenting repetition and tasks deemed ‘menial’, which accords full humanity to its subject even within its own structure as work as a peephole, and in which visibility is one of the most basic exchanges of power.

Fannie’s Film

Fannie’s Film is a documentary short focusing on Fannie, an elderly African-American woman who works as a cleaner in a gym in the 1980s. She talks about her life and her work, as the film shows her picking up towels, wiping down mirrors, and dusting the blinds.

The visuals are only of the gym, the skinny white New Yorkers at the height of the fitness fad contrast with Fannie’s older firmer-set black figure. The underlying power dynamics are obvious. But the vocals are of Fannie describing an entire life beyond this one. She talks about her childhood, which she sees as a time of abundance. Despite not having many modern-day conveniences, she says her father was a real family man, and spent whatever he made on giving his kids anything they wanted. When she grew up and married, it was also to a very loving man, and she had a happy marriage. She always worked so she could maintain her independence, but they were comfortable enough that it wasn’t a necessity. She talks about her spiritual life, seeing herself as blessed by God, having been given a very easy life, and breaks into hymns from time to time.

The film has an awareness of the power structures in which we find Fannie, a woman doing women’s work which is given low status and pay, which is deliberately made invisible to those who rely on it. It speaks so much to race, to gender, to class. Yet it is equally important to show how resistance within those power structures can be as simple as refusing to be defined by them.

Comets

Comets is this beautiful, heartfelt movie about love set almost entirely in a garden in Georgia. It is almost like a play more than a film, with characters discussing the most intense and meaningful of emotions with relatively little action or plot. It almost feels like the film takes place in real time, bookended by the main character Nana’s daughter going to the shops, then returning home.

The film has a stillness to it, like the breathless heat of the summer day it takes place in. The camera moves very little, as we are introduced to the initial languid feeling of sunbathed leisure in this pastoral scene. But the camera remains still as this seemingly soporific domesticity peels back to reveal the tumultuous inner life of the characters. All of life is here, and in the deceptive tranquillity are the intensest tragedies and loves.

The film starts with Nana’s daughter reading a small book of poetry and having a morning coffee. Nana enters with blackberries she has picked, and begins sorting out the sweet and ripe ones. And in this contented tableau, Nana’s daughter confesses that she and her boyfriend may be breaking up, that he seems like a good man, but she doubts whether she even has the ability to love, that she is perhaps incapable of it. Her mother, older and having seen more of life, talks to her daughter about what it is like to love her, about her daughter’s character. And this theme emerges of the need for but rejection of love.

After Nana’s daughter goes to the shop, Nana is busy with the chores of the day when, like a comet hitting earth, the love of her life steps into her garden. Irina, the girl who was her first love 30 years ago, and who left never to return after their attempt to live their love openly was met with calamity. The rest of the film is just this incredibly rich two-hander, as these two character feel around the edges of each other to see who they are now, to understand who they were, and what their love meant for each of them.

It has such frank intimacy, and there are such screams in the silences. The performances feel so real, and there is this pressure of both the possibility and transience of this one meeting. Despite the lack of movement on screen, your attention is rapt.

A film that leaves you holding your breath.

Our People Will Be Healed

Our People Will Be Healed is about the Cree First Nation reservation school at Norway House, Manitoba, Canada. It begins its story there and then spirals out to encompass the entire community, showing how change ripples out. This film is so uplifting, full of hope.

So many stories told about indigenous peoples focuses on the violence perpetuated against them and intergenerational effects of that trauma. Our People Will Be Healed is a different kind of story, showing a community rebuilding, recovering, blossoming. It is hopeful in a sense that is not simply speculative about the future, but evidenced in the here and now, being made by many hands and tangible.

The Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw School is reversing the long-perpetuated practice of using education as a vehicle for violence against indigenous people, as a means to remove and acculturate children. And that is where the film starts, with all the successes. It has increased student retention, academic achievement, is decolonising their curriculum, ensuring Native Studies subjects are part of every student’s schedule, and teaching the Cree language. The pride and self-esteem of the students are self-evident. Even kids who have dropped out say they intend on returning, that they can see the worth of what is being taught. And the teachers are a really motivated bunch, determined that this generation will not be another generation lost to the failures of a racist education system which was never intended for Cree children to reach their full potential.

It really is moving. And I say this as someone who hated school, and has a deep cynicism of teachers tooting their own horn. But watching the music teacher teach huge classes on the fiddle old Cree hymns and traditional folk songs, it is really moving. The whole music department are just so enthusiastic, it had me wanting to learn the fiddle!

Gordon Walker is the school’s Cree language and culture adviser, and he takes students out on canoeing expeditions, showing them how to fish, hunt and trap. And you follow the thread from the school out into the community, as you see students not just learning something practical away from a classroom setting, but spend time with a male role model, someone knowledgeable and caring. Kids open up about the social problems of alcohol, drugs, gangs, criminality, early pregnancy, poverty, and challenging or absent family relationships. All of which are usually treated as ‘outside school’ problems, but which have a massive impact on their ability to stay in school and pursue their education. For some of them, Gordon is the only father figure they know, and the only one to take the time to teach them with kindness and patience. Even other community members who come along to help him on school trips speak to the influence Gordon has had on them, getting them out of gang life, taking their mind off substance abuse and putting them to work, focusing on making a better start for the kids. This film is about hope, but it’s the hope you make.

What I love about this film is it, start to finish, focuses on the successes. Rejecting centring the narrative on the violence of the oppressor, but on the celebration, love, and rekindling community who are solving their problems themselves. While some explanation is required of the previous school system, the widespread violence against indigenous women, and the outlawing of Cree traditional practices, in order to give context to the current achievements, it is always given second place to Cree action and agency in how they fought to overcome, and continue to fight, to ensure their people have what they need physically, ecologically, emotionally, spiritually, educationally and socially.

A feel-good movie that is really nourishing for the soul.

To See You Again

That was a hard watch. I cried throughout.

To See You Again is a documentary about women searching for their missing loved ones in Mexico. In Morales, the families of the missing band together and win the right to have government mass graves opened, and to exhume the bodies for identification. Not trusting the authorities, they fight for and are granted the right to oversee the exhumation, to take their own notes, gather any evidence they can.

In Mexico, corruption is so endemic, government graves, which are supposed to be for the disposal of unclaimed bodies, are also used as dumping grounds by organised crime gangs and cartels. Also, if the police want to make someone disappear, they can be stuck there. Or if they don’t feel like doing their jobs, like investigating why a corpse has turned up, they can save themselves the work and just chuck them in with whatever else is going in the ground. The horror and the callousness and the cruelty of these people is almost beyond comprehension.

You hear of them pulling bodies out this pit, still with ligatures on their hands and wrists, women bound and tortured, children stuffed inside the body bags of other victims, and you can’t believe the evil that men do. What people are capable of.

These mothers are searching for their daughters, and someone just lifted and used them like they were nothing, ended them like they were nothing, and the government dumped them like they were nothing, and they were everything to these women. Single mothers raising their kids, tshirts saying “Bring her home”, this wee lady holding up a picture of her trans daughter, saying, “She was my son. I called her Honey”, all of them doing everything they can for those they loved more than anything. They were the centre of their world.

Watching these women climb into white forensic suits, head down into a body pit, to take notes and bear witness, and know with every turn of the sod, that they might see the decomposed remains of the person they love, it takes a strength that is unimaginable. I’m not a religious person, but it makes you want to pray, “God look after them and grant them peace.” No one should ever have to go through that.

And yet, with everything they face, in the midst of this tragedy, and horror, and injustice, they remain good people. They look after each other. They are vigilant, collecting details of clothing and appearance, knowing it might not be their loved one, but it is someone’s loved one, someone’s everything. They do their best to gather as much evidence that might identify this person’s remains. They support other women there, hugging them, covering them if they if gets too much and they need to leave, doing for each other. That you could go through all that, have such a burden, and still think of others, do your best for others . . . The goodness of some people is also beyond comprehension.

This film is very matter of fact, and feels understated for the subject it’s covering. It just shows them heading off in the morning, climbing into their suits, and heading back at night, their arms full of notes. Yet the emotion of it is tremendous. You are just in awe.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

I really wanted to see this film at the Femspectives festival in February, but I missed it because I felt like shite. They actually intended to having other screenings of it later on, but those have now also been cancelled due to the coronavirus. So fuck it, I’m watching it on Netflix with Femspectives at Home, and including it here.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a story about two indigenous Canadian women from very different backgrounds, who collide when one helps rescue the other from a domestic abuse attack. It is shot in a oner and in real time. This gives it an immediacy and an intimacy that is very moving. It also gives it time and space for the drama to come from the quiet moments in the aftermath, rather than focus on the event. We never directly see the attack, all the drama is from watching the character absorb everything around them, process it, and wait for them to make a decision.

You know what it reminds me of, weirdly? It reminds me of the books of Willa Cather. Her writing is very plain and practical, but by the end you look back and see this heartbreakingly beautiful novel. Just like Willa Cather’s writing is absent of literary flourishes, I feel like there are very few flashy tactics and tricks in the way this film is shot, the story is just put in front of you, and it is the nakedness and ordinariness that punctures your heart.

I love Rosie, the young, broke, pregnant woman who is found barefoot in the street after escaping her boyfriend’s attack. She spits in the eye of the viewer and says to Aila, who comes to her rescue, you think you know me. You think you can take one look at me and know everything about me. Well, fuck you.

Aila is just someone with her own life and own problems, who just wants to help. Yet as a middle-class, light-skinned, thin, femme woman, who is the picture postcard of all the power and respect that Rosie doesn’t have, there is a constant bristle of conflict between them. Aila is the poster child for successful indigenous people. Not overweight, impoverished, and trailing a set of social problems a mile wide. And yet, although this is how Rosie sees her, we know Aila’s life is not perfect, that she is medicated for anxiety, and we have no idea what she herself might have gone through in the past.

Kinda like what I was saying about Willa Cather’s novels, which focuses on day-to-day practicalities, yet contains all of life in there, this film is so dense with substance. Through all these practical discussions about getting Rosie to a safe house for the night, all these chit-chats in taxi cabs, you see so much about class, colourism, the forging and breaking and reforging of solidarity in the face of multiple intersectional oppressions. And agency. Just because Rosie is being found in this moment needing help, doesn’t mean that defines who she is. She is keenly aware of how she is defined in the gaze of others, and bucks at it constantly.

And you don’t need to know the history here to feel it. For generations, indigenous kids have been taken off their parents to be stripped of their culture in Native schools, something which happened in Canada but has also been repeated around the world. Think of movies like Rabbit Proof Fence and Song Without A Name, where indigenous children are abducted and it is always assumed by those in power that they will be better off in environments of white ‘civilisation’. You don’t need to be familiar with the details to feel that weight of distrust that is a permanent factor in Rosie’s decision-making.

Also, as a working class person, it is immediately identifiable that she fears her child will be taken by the social work system. The politics of class and gender push mothers into poverty, then blame them as bad mothers for being there.

For Rosie, she has to balance the devil she knows, against the risks of the unknown in a society which is hostile to her survival, and always has been. While we are all routing for her to leave her abusive partner, one of this film’s achievements is to make clear how rational a choice it might be to not do that.

A great movie. An hour and 45 minute window in someone’s life that manages to somehow capture so much complexity with seemingly so little.