Housing Problems
Housing Problems by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey

By Rebecca Naughten

The 7th biennial AV Festival took place between 27th March – 27th April in Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding area in north east England. The 2016 edition’s title, Meanwhile, what about Socialism?, was inspired by a current groundswell of interest in socialism internationally, but more specifically by George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) (wherein Orwell rhetorically asks that question). Written after Orwell spent two months living and travelling around the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire, the book is divided into two parts: a graphic depiction of the poverty and miserable working and living conditions that were blighting the lives of the working classes in 1930s England; and an impassioned and provocative critique of English socialism and the country’s class divisions.

Looking for echoes of Orwell’s ‘state of the nation’ observations and his exploration of what he envisioned socialism to be, the AV Festival programmed works by filmmakers and artists who “situate themselves in relation to historic and contemporary political struggle, revolution and social movements […] to suggest new subjectivities and forms of resistance to the neoliberal capitalism of today”. Alongside various artistic exhibitions and installations, there were three curated weekends of film screenings focussed on different forms of radical filmmaking: Between Times (the films of British director Marc Karlin); Tracing the Anabasis of the Japanese Red Army (making connections between three filmmakers / visual artists – Masao Adachi, Eric Baudelaire and Naeem Mohaiemen); and Levels of Democracy (Ukrainian cinema, with a particular focus on documentary and Sergei Loznitsa). In parallel with this – and running throughout the month-long duration of the festival – a series of screenings (collectively titled ‘Resistance’) charted a course through the tradition of British political documentary.

This collection included documentary shorts from the 1930s and 40s, films from the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s, works by the 1970s oppositional collectives Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Collective, and experimental films by artists. For this viewer, the British films – including those by Marc Karlin, a director whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to the festival (many of his documentaries are available as VOD on Vimeo) – were the most overt manifestation of the festival’s literary inspiration. It’s not about shared geography – or even nationality – so much as the way in which the included British filmmakers actively tried to give a voice to working people, to draw attention to social issues and workers’ rights, and that several of them implicitly (or explicitly) criticised the Establishment or challenged the status quo in a similar spirit to Orwell.

Spare Time
Spare Time by Humphrey Jennings

Obvious parallels can be seen in Housing Problems (Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey, 1935) and Today We Live (Ruby Grierson and Ralph Bond, 1937), which cover similar issues to The Road to Wigan Pier, specifically the atrocious living conditions of the working poor and the instability of employment in industrial areas. Housing Problems was one of the first examples of vox populi and the inclusion of ordinary people talking on camera was unusual for a time when the (radio) broadcasting norm would have been the clipped, formal English of the BBC. Although stilted in their delivery, the people expressing themselves in vernacular phrases feel authentic – and there is power in being represented in your own words rather than solely through the words of others. Similarly, two of the Humphrey Jennings films that were screened – Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939) and Listen to Britain (co-directed by Stewart McAllister, 1942) – capture moments of real life (a woman bending to fasten her shoe as other dancers continue to waltz around her on the dance floor, or a child who skips out of time with her own clapping) in amongst their poetic artistry in such a way as to throw into relief the rarity of working class people being represented as themselves – as individuals – rather than simply ‘the workers’. These filmmakers took the time to observe and listen to people who were rarely given a voice of their own onscreen.

Utopia by Marc Karlin
Utopias by Marc Karlin

This capacity to listen – an indication of a genuine interest in others and of trying to understand lives lived in different circumstances to your own – was most markedly apparent in my favourite film of the festival, Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Collective, 1975). An abstract and experimental documentary, Nightcleaners follows a specific unionisation campaign between 1970-72 when former cleaner May Hobbs approached the Women’s Liberation Movement for help with encouraging the women who cleaned London office blocks at night to unionise and campaign for better pay and working conditions. The film captures the start of political consciousness in this group of women and uses an abstract and meditative approach – for example, there are repetitive cuts to black, which are then held for several seconds as if to give the audience time to think – to get to hidden truths about the gender and labour inequalities inherent to social structures. Nearly all of the women had taken on night work because they had young children and couldn’t afford childcare – lack of sleep is a recurring topic of conversation because most only managed a couple of hours in the middle of the day (“if the baby sleeps”) while their children were at school. As the filmmakers (the collective consisted of Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott and Humphrey Trevelyan) chat to the women at work, there are repeated extreme close-ups of the women’s eyes – so close that the grainy black and white images become fluttering abstractions – emphasising their sheer exhaustion but also expressive of the filmmakers’ attempt to see the women properly (eyes as windows to the soul) and to understand their outlook on the world.

The British documentaries screened at AV Festival 2016 spanned more than eighty years of filmmaking and collectively echoed Orwell’s attempts to make visible the political in people’s everyday lives – whether by highlighting social inequalities or as a conscious expression of solidarity. In a deliberate mirroring of The Road to Wigan Pier‘s structure, this edition of the festival was billed as ‘Part 1’ – it is intended that socialism (and presumably critiques thereof, if following Orwell in content as well as form) will be explored further in ‘Part 2’ at AV Festival 2018.