A Life Consumed By Work: On “Nightcleaners” and “The Chambermaid”

On the evening of Monday 29th July, I attended a free screening of the 1975 documentary “Nightcleaners” at Output Gallery in Liverpool. It’s a film I had been wanting to see for a while, and since I am back at home for the week, I jumped onto a train into the city to check it out. 

The screening was held in a small gallery space at the back of a vintage shop, where we sat on fold out chairs, and the film was projected onto a bare white wall. It felt very communal, which was fitting given the subject matter of the film, so I didn’t mind peering over shoulders to see the screen once I got settled in.

“Nightcleaners” was made by the Berwick Street Collective (Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott and Humphry Trevelyan) to document the lives of a group of cleaners working night shifts in London office blocks. Filmed around the time of the “Kill The Bill” protests over union rights, we begin by observing the mundane routines of the women at work, and hearing about their home lives, before the focus of the film expands to cover the wider socio-political context, as some of the workers begin to organise themselves through unionisation, and protests begin.

In the introduction given at Output, we were told that the film uses experimental techniques to create a film that feels “precarious” like the work itself. I found that the film achieved this through use of disembodied dialogue over seemingly unconnected imagery, lingering black screens, and slow motion close ups of faces and mouths. The women we meet are tired, getting on average two hours sleep per night (or day). The snatches of imagery capture this, reminding me of slowly blinking eyes, trying to stay awake through another long day. The film fades to black in one location, and a new scene brings us back somewhere else, as if we sleepwalked there.

A quote from one of the interviewed cleaners jumped out at me; describing her existence as “A life consumed by work”. This phrase reminded of a film that I watched a couple of months ago as part of a university exercise in film criticism. It was “The Chambermaid”, the directorial debut of Mexican theatre maker and actor Lila Aviles. They are, on the surface, completely different films, set in completely different times and places. Whilst “Nightcleaners” is an unashamedly anti-capitalist documentary direct from the politically charged world of 1970’s London, “The Chambermaid” is a 2018 fiction feature that follows Eve, a cleaner at a luxury hotel in present day Mexico City. Despite these differences in form and function, the films do mirror elements of one another. Both films focus on the lives of workers with little visibility. Despite the years and miles between them, when I considered them side by side, the films revealed to me how little things have really changed in all that time.

In “The Chambermaid”, we become observers of the inner workings of the lavish Hotel Presidente. Aviles initially began research into the lives of these workers for a play, which was inspired by photographs of hotel rooms by Sophie Calle. French photographer Calle took a job as a chambermaid in Venice to get access to these rooms, and her photographs are a voyeuristic portrait of those who inhabit them through snapshots of their belongings. She created stories from the disarray, accompanying the photographs with imagined tales of their owners lives. However, unlike Calle’s work, Aviles film is not so much a portrait of the hotel’s guests but, as the name suggests, of the chambermaid who must deal with the mess that is left behind. 

Hotel, Room 47 (1981) by Sophie Calle – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78300

Aviles was given access to a working hotel for research, and she felt that the life of a chambermaid was not dissimilar to that of an “ant” or a “ghost”. This feeling comes through strongly in her film. Eve, the titular chambermaid, moves around the hotel like a spectre, picking up after others but going practically unnoticed by the majority of the guests. They mostly communicate with her with no more than a grunt or the wave of a hand. The camera remains static, treating Eve like a piece of the furniture within the minimalist white suites. We watch her in long, still shots as she works diligently, plumping pillows and smoothing sheets to perfection. Occasionally, she will stop to look at something, but the camera holds back; rather than showing us the object, the camera studies Eve herself, as she curiously peruses the property of one of the residents. 

Similarly, in the first part of “Nightcleaners”, the camera is set up to simply observe the workers as they go through the motions, precisely and expertly executing the roles they perform daily. The women are often filmed through windows; sometimes the camera even zooms in from across the street. These shots illustrate the isolation of the workers within the imposing tower blocks and the alienating darkness of the night. The union workers later point out that the women often clean entire floors of the buildings alone, rarely seeing their colleagues. This poses a challenge to their unionisation, as they have little opportunity to discuss their problems or to feel communal solidarity with one another.

Eve is, too, a solitary figure. As the film goes on, however, friendships begin to blossom within her workplace. Firstly, with a guest named Rumi; a chatty, wealthy Argentinian woman with few inhibitions (she greets Eve topless on her first visit to her room) who needs someone to take care of her baby whilst she showers and her husband is out at work. Though Rumi is rather self absorbed and unself-aware with regards to her high class status, she is still one of the first guests to really pay any attention to her cleaner. By asking her a few questions, Rumi allows us to slowly paint a picture in our minds of Eve’s home life, especially how it contrasts to hers. We discover tidbits of information such as the fact that Eve doesn’t even have a shower in her home; that she has never read a book; and she is a single mother to a four year old son – adding an extra melancholy dimension to her caring for Rumi’s child.

Children are very important to the “Nightcleaners” too, despite how little energy they have left for them after a long nights work. The women work nights in order to be able to continue to care for their children after school without paying for childcare, and one woman observes; “My kids are more important than myself, I think”.

As well as spending time with Rumi and the baby, Eve begins to take in-work classes to study for a GED. A woman nicknamed Minitoy attempts to strike up conversations with the initially reluctant Eve, but as time goes by they form a bond. They share their workloads, clean difficult rooms together and giggle in the linen closet. Though the women of “Nightcleaners” do tend to work alone, small moments of friendliness are captured, especially when the women are having tea and smoke breaks. Later in the film, when some of the women begin to unionise, meetings held in caffs show the importance of communication and having someone to talk to who understands your situation.

With the boost in confidence provided by her new companions, Eve even begins to flirt with a window cleaner, through hearts drawn in soap on the glass, and love letters scrawled on tissue paper exchanged in the dining hall. The film shines a light on how personal lives of workers become enmeshed with their work lives, especially when they work such long, unsociable hours. Eve’s romantic relationship comes to a head when she undresses and lays out on a bed in front of her lover, who looks on from his window cleaning platform. He is able to observe her, but is still separated from her by the windowpane. An interesting parallel between the two films is a moment in which a voiceover in “Nightcleaners” takes note of the toll that is taken on the sexual and romantic lives of the women due to their constant fatigue. Whilst the interviewee explains the importance of this issue, the camera observes a cleaner at work through the glass. Glass, in both films, becomes symbolic of the barrier between the desires and physical capabilities of both sets of burned out women.

It is important to note that “The Chambermaid” only ever takes place within the confines of the hotel walls. Each day blurs seamlessly into the next. The only communication with the outside world (that we witness) is Eve’s daily call to her childminder to check on her little one. Again, this emphasises how work has overtaken the lives of the hotel workers. Although “Nightcleaners” takes us out of the blocks occasionally, particularly towards the end when we join the marches, the black and white photography blurs the line between day and night to create a similar feeling – that the home lives of the women are truly “Consumed by work”.

“The Chambermaid” is a film which, though not as explicitly as “Nightcleaners”, draws attention to issues of class and the effects of capitalism on workers. It’s ending reveals that even hard workers like Eve are not always duly rewarded. Despite these serious themes the film manages to be likeable, warm, and occasionally even humorous. The sociopolitical messages are coded through images such as the red dress that Eve covets throughout the film, but eventually realises is meaningless compared to financial stability and education. Eve is played so well by Gabriela Cartol that I was surprised to discover she wasn’t a real chambermaid who had been streetcast – she embodies the role, and so much is said by her small looks and gestures.

“Nightcleaners” is a really important piece of history and a documentary that not only manages to capture the practical realities of workers lives but also their emotional and mental states through its use of experimental techniques. As well as this, the film feels like a political call to arms with regards to how important it is for workers to get together and make change. In the Art Monthly review handed out at Output in lieu of screening notes, writer Melissa Gronlund writes:

“The casual labour market documented in the film… seems only to be more entrenched today than 40 yeas ago. But the level of political debate is shockingly lower; we need to raise it, and searching, critical films like Nightcleaners aren’t a bad place to start.”

“The Chambermaid” beautifully represents this frequently unseen world with curiosity, empathy, and clarity. However, following up my viewing with a screening of “Nightcleaners” was an enriching way to view both films very current political dimensions, and offered me ideas, inspiration, and tools with which to fight back against the system Aviles depicts.

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