The Art of (Feminist Film) Work in the Age of Digital Reproduction

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So Mayer is a full-time feminist film activist, working with queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and industry campaigners Raising Films.

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Image Credit: Cinetic Rights Management

Some time in your life you will have occasion to say “What is this thing called time? What is that?” There’s the clock: you go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock, you get your coffee by the clock, you have to get on a plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on. Time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing we cannot touch and is it alive? And then one day you look in the mirror and you are old, and you say,
“Where did the time go?”
— Nina Simone

1. What Is This Thing Called Time?

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin points out that theatre and film do their work in different time signatures. Benjamin argues that non-continuity filmmaking fragments the labour of the performer, and hence the perception of the spectator.[i] In this article, I want to consider three films that ask of the cinematic illusion, “Where did the time go?” Their responses, which draw on real time, continuity filmmaking, durational structuralism, and alternate labour practices, affirm a feminist ethics invested in the idea that time could, and must, be alive.

Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays (2014) takes its name from its shooting schedule: Hyde had her first child shortly before shooting her first fiction feature, and sought a filmmaking method that would address the urgent need for Family Friendly Filmmaking (a campaign started by filmmaker Hope Dickson Leach).[ii] Rehearsing on Fridays and shooting on Tuesdays over the course of a year, Hyde invited her cast into a unique improvisational experiment, allowing the script to change around a fixed narrative spine as the characters developed. Structured around weekly visits between James (Del Herbert-Jane), who is transitioning, and his daughter Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the film’s enmeshing of story structure and production schedule is reflected in the characters’ diaristic self-documentation on digital video.

Image Credit: Kino Lorber

Hyde’s film builds on Rage (2009), Sally Potter’s experiment in digital cinema.  As she describes in Naked Cinema: Working with Actors (2014), Potter developed a monologue-rich script that would allow her to employ A-List actors at Equity minimum rates by working with each performer for only a few days. Once again, production dovetails with subject: Rage is set backstage at a series of haute couture catwalk shows, where schoolboy documentarian Michelangelo, armed with a camera phone, interviews everyone from the seamstress to the head honcho over the course of a week. Similarly Billie and James’ self-documentation in 52 Tuesdays, Michelangelo’s implied presence behind the camera—characters address him by name, but his voice is never heard—makes visible the labour of filmmaking.

Both films are evidently interventions into the new temporality and new labour conditions of digital media, but they share a commitment to reflexive ethics and feminist politics that can be traced back to Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), and Barbara Kopple’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary Harlan County USA (1976). In 1972-73, Kopple lived for eighteen months in a striking West Virginia mining community, documenting the women who continued to perform domestic labour while also performing the political labour of supporting the strike. Though they are, in formal terms, worlds apart, Harlan County, USA resonates with Akerman’s film of the previous year in its focus on women’s labour.

2. Doing Time

All three films—Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays, Potter’s Rage, and Kopple’s Harlan County USA—are concerned with what might be called, to borrow Anne Carson’s phrase, “the off hours.” Rather than observing people “go[ing] to work by the clock,” as seen in later feminist documentaries such as Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986) and Michelle Citron’s What You Take for Granted (1984), these films are attentive to forms of physical and affective labour that exist both outside of and beyond the clock. This is inherent in how they present the labour of filmmaking: unlike many of the feminist documentaries of the emergent second wave, Harlan County USA‘s mode is not confessional, and Kopple never appears before the camera. Yet the filmmaker’s labouring body remains palpable—especially in the scene where she and the camera are struck by rocks thrown on the picket line. Throughout, there is a tacit investigation of the relationship between the filmmaker’s labour/time and the workers’ labour/time.

Harlan County covers the eighteen months of the strike, but it also gives an embedded history of the United Mine Workers of America, extending beyond Kopple’s period in Harlan County to document the resolution of the strike. Although there are scenes of violence and confrontation that punctuate the narrative, they are exactly that—punctuations. The grammar of the film is that of dilation, waiting—those “off hours.” The women who take Kopple into their community are not idle: they bathe children, prepare food, plan, and sing. But they are in suspension, in some sense doing time, held hostage by the strike that is being fought between the male miners (their husbands, fathers, and brothers) and supported by the male union staff against the male mining company.

They are also “doing time” in another sense: filling screen time with actions dismissed by mainstream cinema and capitalism as inaction or non-work. Their active engagement in this subversive labour temporality is highlighted by Kopple’s use of long takes and lengthy single-location scenes. This is exemplified by a sequence in the middle of the film during which Florence Reece performs the solidarity song “Which Side Are You On?” Reece wrote the song during a previous strike in 1931 to persuade the local sheriff’s men who attempted to arrest her husband (a union organizer) into workers’ solidarity. She is given the film’s undivided attention as she narrates the writing of the song and performs it. Kopple allows for the dual, continuous, cyclical history of union activism in Harlan County to unfold in a cinematic feminist “real time” as a protest against capitalism’s linear, regulatory time and unrelenting progressive history.

3. On Time

Harlan County‘s extraordinary intensity arises from the sense of shared time: the community and filmmaker are both waiting for something to happen. Even as Kopple foregrounds women’s labour in the off hours to challenge assumptions about what constitutes a narrative event in conventional cinema, labour continues to be defined by masculine leftist politics. When Sally Potter turns her camera on the shifting politics of labour in the digital era in Rage, she examines a turbo-capitalist site in which labour has expanded into all available time. Michelangelo, her diegetic filmmaker, catches models, moneymen, and industry workers in their off minutes.

Image Credit: Criterion Collection

Pounding music in the background signals the start of each catwalk, an “on time” that everyone needs to meet. The camera enables its own “on” time, a performative space in which each character puts on and takes off mask after mask. For models Minx (Jude Law) and Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole), identity is labour; behind the scenes, for designer Merlin (Simon Abkarian) and seamstress Anita de los Angeles (Adriana Barraza), labour is identity. Time off has been erased by globalization and the ubiquity of media, the very forces that also shape the off time/space in which a young filmmaker of colour can shoot and disseminate his documentary.

Beyond the sound of the catwalk show, the sounds of a protest are gradually heard, its amplification providing the rhythm and climax of the film. It’s never specified why the protestors have gathered, but the monologues suggest supply chain politics, labour disputes, fashion as an exploitative industry, sexism, racism, and the sinister machinations of global capital. The question “Which Side Are You On?” has become more complex in the diffuse networks of globalized labour, but the answer remains clear: the explicit framing of the filmmaker’s labour renders all of the characters as workers in parallel, even moneyman Tiny Diamonds (Eddie Izzard). Solidarity and dignity are reclaimed in the new labour of making the self appear to the patient, responsive, intimate camera.

4. In (Between) Time

Rage goes beyond continuity filmmaking in the close parallels between its mode of production and its internal temporality. The traditional relationship of subject and camera remains similar to Harlan County, but the invisible diegetic filmmaker Michelangelo suggests the swiftly changing landscape in which the labour of image-making has become utopian, democratized, and accessible—or, dystopian, pervasive, invasive, and regulatory. 52 Tuesdays, made five years later, is at once profoundly ambivalent and ambivalently profound about the utopian and dystopian possibilities of working on our selves through social media in a time when auto-documentation has become a way of life.

Selves become selfies becoming selves, as James documents his transition through video diaries posted online, a practice that refers to a long tradition of feminist and queer first-person documentary. In particular, his visit to a trans conference in San Francisco evokes Monika Treut’s documentary Gendernauts: A Journey through Shifting Identities (1999), made with trans media scholar Sandy Stone. Shot in the utopian moment of cyberfeminism, Treut and Stone’s film draws parallels between the new gender identities emerging in the Bay Area, and the online cultures and digital art taking form in the same location.

James’ filmic labour trails off as his transition is complicated by medical issues. A second rhythm of self-documentation counterpoints it: Billie beings to spend Tuesday evenings filming Jasmine and Josh, older students from her school. She films them answering intimate questions with words and sexual play, but also, offscreen, films herself delivering bleak sound bites intercut with news footage of disasters that act as temporal markers for the film’s production duration in 2013. Billie literally works on time, trying to contain the intimate and political chaos of her year through filming.

While we see James filming himself, and see the film clips simultaneously within the frame on his laptop, Billie’s turn in front of the camera is temporally shifted. Brief clips of her found-footage montages appear throughout the film, between Tuesdays, before we see evidence of her shooting them. It is only when Billie edits her material together as a gift for Jasmine that her confessions are re-integrated into the diegesis, as first Jasmine then James watch sections of Billie’s film. The film damages her friendships with Jasmine and Josh, and horrifies her parents, pointing to anxieties about adolescent immersion in digital and social media.

Both James and Billie turn to digital cameras as a way of working through their in-between times. The documentation serves as a way to answer Billie’s question to James: “When does it fucking change?” This anxious question draws attention to the temporality of both individual and political processes. In a fascinating experiment, one that highlights the film’s ambivalence towards affective digital labour, the My 52 Tuesdays website invites users to contribute creative answers to intimate questions posed each Tuesday, posting them automatically to the user’s Facebook page. It’s a democratic extension of the filmmaking process, but also potentially as damaging as Billie’s film. It asks the viewers to become participant-observers, to test the effects of digital labour in their own lives.

5. The Time of Our Lives

As in Harlan County and Rage, the camera in 52 Tuesdays is a means and not an end. It is not the technology, but the filmmaker’s labour that points reflexively and welcomes us into the “off hours.” Through the palpability of the filmmaker’s labour, we can feel the parallels between screen time and collaborative production schedules. The specificity of each film’s equation of production and screen time destabilizes the rigid timetabling Nina Simone deplores. This creates a contingent temporality that reshapes the viewing experience from escapist no-time to collaborative immediacy. This is a transformative ethics that sings to us, as viewers, “Which Side Are You On?” and reminds us that we share time through work. As digital labour becomes the clock we punch, these films reconnect us to the time of our lives.





[i] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, 1970. 222-24.

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the cléo reader: 2013-2019

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