The Nightcleaners by Berwick Street Film Collective

The Berwick Street Film Collective co-founded by Marc Karlin and James Scott made political films in London during the 1970's. Setting them apart was their commitment not only to radical subject matter but radical aesthetics too.

 

Names associated with the group include Mary Kelly, Richard Mordaunt, Jon Sanders and Humphrey Trevelyan. The collective is credited with directing three films between 1974 and 1978, and adopted a unified approach to production, distribution and exhibition.

 

The Nightcleaners, Part 1 (1975), was envisioned initially as a campaign film about efforts to unionise women working as cleaners at night in office blocks.

 

Made over a period of years the film became recognised as a milestone in British political cinema, particularly within the context of feminism and collective film making.

 

As with directors such as Godard and Huillet, it is influenced by Brechtian formal strategies: in that it “draws attention to itself and makes the film's construction as artefact apparent”[1]

 

The collective adapted documentary material they had shot, adopting techniques such as montage, and the insertion of black leader tape - which gave the film a particular rhythm while also allowing the audience to reflect on the image just seen - non-synchronised voices and images, modified and reworked images, slow motion and silence.

 

Theorist Griselda Pollok viewed Nightcleaners as “avant-garde poetics that addressed the representation of women and work” and acknowledged “the fundamental contradiction between the typical cinematic means of producing a 'truth' about working-class life...and the political aesthetics of a film that advertised its own manufacture”[2].

 

The film's strength was to put the experience of class on the screen; however, the film came under fierce criticism. As Dickinson noted, The Nightcleaners “was attacked and praised with a passion not normally evoked in Britain by a cultural event”.[3]

 

Though there was no Part 2 to The Nightcleaners, a sequel, '36 to '77, was made in 1978 featuring one of the cleaners from the original film reflecting on her life.

 

Groups such as Berwick Street Film Collective and films like The Nightcleaners are important, not only for their original aesthetic approach to a documentary subject but because they speak to a broader tradition of independent film making in the UK.

 

With a commitment to politicise all elements of film making form production through to distribution and exhibition. Berwick Street Film Collective was a forerunner to several groups - including the Independent Filmmakers Association - who favoured an 'integrated practice.'

 

 

[1] Julia Hallam (2000) 'Realism and Popular Cinema'

[2] Griselda Pollock quoted in James Scott (20--) 'Berwick Street Fim Collective'

[3] Dickinson quoted in James Scott (20--) 'Berwick Street Fim Collective'