Tuesday, May 12, 2015 at 7:30pm
Berwick Street Collective's Nightcleaners

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Nightcleaners, Berwick Street Collective, 1975, new digital scan of 16mm, 90 mins
Introduced by Dan Kidner

The Berwick Street Film Collective occupied a unique position within the field of independent film in the UK in the 1970s. Their work Nightcleaners has continued to represent something of a watershed for those interested in political cinema and the cultural advance (and retreat) of left-political subcultures of the era. The collective was at once a production company, a facilities house, and a filmmaking group, but is perhaps best understood as a loose and shifting collection of individuals for whom making film and doing politics became synonymous in the period 1970 to 1978. During these years three feature length films—Ireland behind the Wire (1974), Nightcleaners, and ’36 to ’77 (1978)—were made, each by different personnel and under different circumstances.

Nightcleaners was made by Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott, and Humphry Trevelyan. It was the perfect synthesis of their interests: Karlin was a filmmaker who had lived in Paris and had worked with Chris Marker; Kelly was an active participant in the women’s movement and an artist in the process of making her landmark piece Post-Partum Document (1973-79); Trevelyan, a filmmaker who had studied photography and anthropology, had with Karlin left another group, Cinema Action, to found the Berwick Street Film Collective; and Scott, a painter, had made innovative documentaries on artists like Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Claes Oldenburg, as well as the feature Adult Fun (1972), an experimental espionage thriller.

The film is ostensibly a record of the attempts by the women’s movement to unionize the female night cleaners of London through a campaign begun in 1970, but the collective always intended it to be more than just a campaign film. With its extended sequences of black leader, slowed down and re-filmed footage, and montaged fragments of conversations, Nightcleaners can claim to be that rare thing, simultaneously a formal experiment and a political film. It is at once committed to a particular struggle and a reflection on what it means to make an image of struggle.

When Nightcleaners was screened, after a production period of almost five years, it had a significant impact on theoretical discussions of independent film in the UK. Film theorists Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen, writing for the influential journal Screen, celebrated it for representing the future of political filmmaking. For Johnston and Willemen, Nightcleaners was the work to usher in a whole new way of thinking about the truth claims of documentary form. By the mid-1970s semiotic-psychoanalytic film theory had taken a stranglehold on film studies in the UK, but it was still largely a tool for interpreting the signs and meanings hidden beneath the texts of Hollywood and mainstream cinema. Theorists such as Johnston were looking for films that, rather than simply being there for the "reading," might extend an invitation to the viewer to “make his/her contribution...to the process of meaning-production."

Rather than a mere passive consumer of an ideological position, as Johnston claimed was the case with audiences of political films up to this point in an article she wrote for the feminist journal Spare Rib, the viewer might now be an active participant in the practice of consciousness raising.

- DK

Dan Kidner is a freelance curator and writer. He was previously director of Picture This, Bristol (2011 - 2013), and co-director of City Projects, London (2004 - 2011). Over the past 10 years he has produced many artists’ films including Full Firearms by Emily Wardill (2011), Abyss by Knut Åsdam and The Empty Plan by Anja Kirschner and David Panos (both 2010). He has edited several books including most recently Working Together: British Film Collectives in the 1970s.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.