Where we are now calls for a reinvention of the way we approach cinemas as a business and cinema as a community asset. In this blog series, we ask people to share a personal vision of what’s not working now and what the future of film exhibition should look like.
In this third article we hear from So Mayer, co-founder of Raising Films, about their vision of a sector which values and supports caring labour.
Here are some headlines from my slice of the cultural sector at the time of writing (12 August 2020): Tate Enterprises announces 313 redundancies, almost 50% of its workforce, while the Southbank Centre in London has announced 400 redundancies; some Odeon cinemas are suspending professional cleaning services, and asking front-of-house staff to stay for an hour at close of business to clean the screens, in violation of health and safety.
Another way of telling the story: Odeon’s actions are being gathered and reported via Odeon Workers Union on Twitter, a workers’ coalition focused on labour conditions at the chain; 132 former Tate Enterprises Staff have signed an open letter urging Tate to reconsider the redundancies, and over 7000 people have signed an open letter to Southbank Centre management. In both cases, the grassroots actions are led by and from anti-racism, to address the disproportionate impact of the job cuts on Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff.
Caring and Covid-19
In the midst of a global pandemic, cultural workers – many already facing precarious conditions including zero- or low-hours contracts and other forms of systemic and structural exclusion – are those with the least available time; and yet they are the ones who are taking care of the future possibilities of arts and culture, in a very real sense. As they have been: Odeon Workers builds on the active presence, on- and offline, of Ritzy Living Wage and the related campaign for fair front-of-house wages and conditions at Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas (most recently, Cineworld Action Group). While the pandemic appears to have created crisis conditions for cultural workers, the continued presence of grassroots organising is a clear and telling indication that the precarious and prejudicial conditions pre-existed, and have been exacerbated by, this crisis.
We currently face a crisis whose devastating effects highlight what happens when caring labour, and those who practice it and/or need it and are most strongly associated with it, are consistently, systemically and structurally devalued. Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers are over-represented in frontline, high-risk and caring roles, while women continue to undertake the majority of unpaid domestic caring labour. Older people, young children, people with disabilities, and refugees and migrants are frequently seen as disproportionately receiving, rather than giving, care, although many may be carers as well as cared-for. Both caring and being cared for are shamed under capitalism: austerity politics have targeted all forms of caring labour in order to ‘save’ money. And yet the result has been a severe recession. What would happen if we flipped the story of the last decade, and told it with caring labour and its resistance at the centre?
Caring in film
In fact, this decade has been marked by an increase in the number of high-profile independent films about care work and caring. Ava DuVernay’s self-funded fiction debut I Will Follow (2010) follows a young make-up artist Maye (Sally Richardson-Whitfield) who has been caring for her musician aunt. DuVernay’s ARRAY distribution network has highlighted a number of films that centre caring, with Netflix offering a venue for films that fly beneath theatrical distribution; most recently Isabel Sandoval’s stunning Lingua Franca, in which Olivia (Sandoval) secures a job as a live-in caregiver, in search of a green card to stay in the US.
British cinema has given us Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (2019), which shows the pressures on Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), a contract nurse and in-home carer in austerity Britain; Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken (2020), in which Leo (Javier Bardem) is cared for in his dementia by both professionals and his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a journalist juggling work and life; and For Sama (2019), directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, focusing on the entwined lives of a family and a collectively-run hospital in Aleppo. And at Hakawati Films, producer Elhum Shakerifar has put together a portfolio of radically intimate documentaries – Even When I Fall (Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon, 2018), Almost Heaven (Carol Salter, 2017), Island (Steven Eastwood, 2017), Of Love and Law (Hikaru Toda, 2017) – that demonstrate how transformative it is to centre caring in one’s practice.
Caring in film exhibition
Yet too often these films play in venues that the characters they depict would not be able to access, for physical, social or economic reasons. As cultural cinema programmers and independent exhibitors, we often use the language of caring and community-building to describe what we do. But all-important inclusive projects and strategies are rarely allowed to be as transformative of our practice as they might be. Thorough-going organisational change such as transforming the physical space of venues and reconfiguring who leads on decision-making and how decisions are made to truly be communitarian and inclusive are presented as costly, and yet in their responsiveness, they are economically – and more importantly, socially – cost-effective.
There are many recent programmes and initiatives in the UK that do undertake that work with specific audiences, and more infrequently with specific communities of art workers, and that have had far-reaching ramifications. One outstanding offering is the Dukes Lancaster programme A Life More Ordinary, devised and implemented with Age UK Lancaster to offer a welcoming environment for older couples affected by dementia, which ran nationwide in 2018 reaching 11,000 people. Embedding ALMO in the organisation enabled the Dukes to be ready and stay connected to audiences through a series of community-devised at-home activities for shielding seniors and their families during lockdown.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of Raising Films, over the five years since we co-founded it, is how starting with specific challenges raised by parenting and caring has completely changed how I think about film and television. Let’s call it the Pringles theory of social justice activism: once you pop about all the multiple and mutually reinforcing physical, psychological, economic and representational ways in which – for example, parents and carers – are excluded from working in the screen sector, you can’t stop.
A More Caring Future
Immediate, creative solutions to immediate, palpable crises are highly appreciated, such as Le Ballon Rouge childcare at Cannes 2019, which was crowdfunded by grassroots industry group Parenting at Film Festivals in response to reports from the 2018 festival about parents with children being excluded from the Marché, as Annemarie Jacir told Raising Films. But, like the Tate PCS and Odeon Workers, organisations like Raising Films and Parenting at Film Festivals recognise that strategic solutions serve to illustrate the larger problem.
That’s why Raising Films commissioned six provocations from leading agitators in our community, as part of our Raising Our Futures lockdown project. Samar Ziadat, co-founder, programmer and co-ordinator of Dardishi and a programmer at SQIFF, ended the series thus:
‘The big, big question that I can’t stop asking myself is: under these conditions, how do we facilitate alternative spaces for community-making and wellbeing that are ethical, safe, and accessible? Because if that isn’t the most urgent question that art-workers are asking themselves today – then what is?’
The pandemic has increased the number of vulnerable people in our communities, among our colleagues and our audiences; many of them already facing intersectional challenges due to marginalisation. It has also increased the amount of unpaid caring responsibilities, and the number of people undertaking them. It’s easy to say that curation derives from cūra, which means care: it’s harder to enact – but our community is full of thriving, creative examples of caring practice that need support, engagement and centring. If we don’t want to exhibit only to elites (call it the fancy popcorn theory of exhibition), we need to not only learn from grassroots organisers, but let them lead.
So Mayer’s books include the forthcoming manifesto for queer film activism A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press). They work with queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes, and are a co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the UK screen sector.
To read the first article in the series by Rebecca Del Tufo about a more inclusive future cinema, click here. To read the second article in the series by Megan Mitchell about a vision of revitalised programming and pricing, click here.