The Berwick Street Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975) was filmed to support an attempt by the women’s movement to unionise London’s night cleaners. Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. Here is a short scene.
The collective was founded by Marc Karlin, Humphry Treveleyan, Richard Mordaunt and James Scott. During the filming of Nightcleaners they were joined by artist Mary Kelly. Here is a bio from the early 1970s out of the archive.
Humphry Treveleyan and Marc Karlin were both members of Cinema Action, the left-wing film collective, in the late 1960s but both left dissatisfied with the group’s formal commitment to film-making. With Nightcleaners, those expecting a didactic film, found one that was nuanced and exploratory, both in terms of form and working class representation. The film used black spacing which slowly draws contemplation from the viewer and the fragmented soundtrack, together with time lapse sequences, applied pressure on the image, questioning its ability to record actuality. At the time, Screen journal declared it undoubtedly the most ‘important political film to have been made in this country’ and predicted it ‘to provide a basis for a new direction in British film-making’ . Claire Johnston’s Jump Cut review proclaimed Nightcleaners was ‘redefining the struggle for revolutionary cinema’.
The revolution failed to materialise and Nightcleaners remained firmly underground. Naturally being a collective project, Nightcleaners seeps many histories and it remains a complicated assignment to gain an exact understanding of the creative intentions of the film from those involved. To this day tensions linger, as you can witness from the exchanges between feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham, a campaigner with the Cleaners Action Group at the time, and Humphry Teveleyan in the Q&A.
That is not to say Nightcleaners ever went away. Indeed, Mike Sperlinger, LUX’s Assistant Director, states from 2002 onwards the film had regular screenings with many different audiences, striking a political chord particularly in a time where the erosion of the trade unions of the 1980s has noticeably come home to roost. Mike also observes a renewed interest in materialist film practises in oppositional film over the past ten years and Humphry Trevelyan adds the film has been adopted recently by the Occupy movement with a screening at UCL.
Nightcleaners (1974) and it’s ‘sequel’ 36′ to 77′ (1978) will soon be released by LUX on DVD.
This Q&A is chaired by Picture This director Dan Kidner with Mike Sperlinger and Humphry Treveleyan and poses the question; does a film need to explore form as well as content to be political?