From 22 September to 14 October, Femspectives is teaming up with Invisible Women to present punch in / out: iterations of labour, a season exploring how the world of work intersects with class, race and gender. Each week we will present a curated programme of films, which will be available to watch IRL at Glasgow Film Theatre and at home via Indy on Demand. An online panel discussion with guests will bring the season to a close on 14 October.
These programme notes have been written by Camilla Baier (Invisible Women) to accompany our week 2 (29 September) screening of Clock In, Clock Out.
“Mexico is the country in which the mother is most venerated and the woman is most despised.”
– Lila Avilés
Is there a more potent symbol for invisible female labour, than that of the cleaning lady? The silent woman, who comes in early in the morning or late at night, unseen and unappreciated, to clean up the mess of others. Many cleaners are men of course, but the act of cleaning is undeniably gendered. When you imagine a cleaner, culturally you have been conditioned to think “woman”. You have been conditioned too, to think of this as low status, perhaps even shameful, work.
“Clock In, Clock Out” pairs two filmmakers who have decided to challenge these stereotypes, and who have done so by recasting a female cleaner as the central protagonist of their films. In Fannie’s Film, from 1979, Fronza Woods offers a charming documentary portrait of a 65-year old African American woman who makes her living cleaning a shiny pilates studio in New York City. By naming her film after her protagonist, Woods makes a bold statement about who deserves to be credited and remembered on film. Forty years later, Lila Avilés would make a contrasting but complementary statement with the title of her own fictional film about a female cleaner. In La Camarista (The Chambermaid), the lead character Eve is forever defined by her exhausting, all-consuming job as a chambermaid at a luxury Mexico City hotel.
Fannie’s Film and La Camarista are absorbing, quietly subversive character studies. Both films show us their protagonists exclusively within their place of work. We never see Fannie off duty, kicking off her shoes after her shift, and we never see Eve return home to the child who she barely sees because she works so late. This narrative decision demonstrates how far such work can dominate one’s life – if your work is precarious and badly paid, even when you are not working the struggle to keep afloat and employed is always on your mind.
The isolating nature of shift work is also emphasised by the isolation of these women, who are generally depicted working alone at anti-social hours. During the early morning hours or the nightshift, these diligent women must stay hiddens and ultimately invisible; the labour deemed well done when they remain unseen. These quiet, unassuming women stand in stark contrast with the spaces in which our heroines invisibly operate; a dynamic dance studio or a bustling luxury hotel. What is most remarkable however, is the deep empathy and wry humour of these films. These women are not victims of their circumstances, and their lives are not grim. Even through the hard work, struggle and exhaustion of often dehumanising work, we are invited to see them shine as three dimensional, complicated, charismatic individuals.
That Fannie and Eve are “individuals” is a key observation here. For all the overlaps between their films, Fronza Woods and Lila Aviles are very different filmmakers and the women they portray are very different protagonists. Wood’s Fannie is utterly charming, warm and gentle. Woods was a young, politically engaged aspiring director when she made Fannie’s Film, and she has mentioned in interviews that she felt a degree of frustration at times towards her subject. Fannie is relentlessly optimistic and serene, even when we see her at the height of her exertion at work, and she refuses to express any anger about the structural inequality that might have contributed to the shape of her circumstances. Although Fannie herself is an apparently apolitical figure, Woods hints at her own politics throughout the film. An opening subtitle reads “Invisible Women: Part 1” (the filmmaker initially envisaged this as part of a series) and the film clearly serves a political purpose as an attempt to make Fannie’s ignored labour visible. Despite shots of gleaming studio equipment and occasional glimpses of exercising clientele, Fannie is essentially the film’s only character – it is very much, throughout, Fannie’s film.
Lila Avilés was also young and ambitious when she made her debut feature. La Camarista extends and illustrates some of the ideas raised by Wood’s film, although its politics are more explicit. In the film, Eve pushes herself to her limits for a promotion which would see her cleaning the rooms on the coveted 42nd floor rather than the 21st, of the glamorous hotel where she spends the majority of her time. The hotel is a luxurious but sterile maze, a series of endless corridors and clanking elevators which transport Eve on a seemingly endless conveyor belt from job to job. We see how Eve, an indigenous woman, has bought into the dream of capitalism embodied by the white guests who she serves every day. Ultimately, we see how capitalism fails to deliver on this promise. In one electrifying scene, Eve emerges onto the roof of the hotel, exiting from the stultifying recycled air of the complex into the fresh air outside for the first time and finally expresses frustration at the trap she is caught in.
“Clock In, Clock Out” is about how shift work tries to turn humans into machines, but it is also a programme about how this is ultimately an impossible task. Humans are humans, no matter what dehumanising conditions you expect them to work within. The sparky, fascinating, vibrant women at the heart of these films are proof of this. Avilés and Woods invite us to really see Eve and Fannie, and by doing so they render their invisible labour, visible and undeniable.