Picture source: Harun Farocki GbR
Students taking the course on Documentary Forms (Film 125 / German 184) in spring 2022, taught by Deniz Göktürk and Alina Predescu, discovered possibilities of engagement with the world through documentary cinema old and new. Weekly screenings in the film series Documentary Voices, co-curated in collaboration with Kathy Geritz at BAMPFA, included an exciting line-up of work from Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Romania, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, China, and the United States. One of the great pleasures of this class, after two years of homebound entertainment due to pandemic lockdown, was the return to collective viewing on the big screen at the Barbro Osher Theater with its powerful Meyer sound system. Documentary Voices also featured several conversations with filmmakers, the Les Blank Lectures by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Lynne Sachs, and a concluding in-person conversation with investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan, whose quest to expose corruption in the Romanian health care system was featured prominently in Alexander Nanau’s Oscar-nominated documentary Collective (2019). A common thread connecting several of these screenings and conversations was a focus on everyday practices: filmmakers observing, participating, and reflecting as they document how people work, live, and die.
The semester started remotely on Zoom with what is often referred to as the first motion picture, Workers Leaving the Factory (1895) by Auguste and Louis Lumière, who filmed workers exiting through the gate of the Lumière factory for photographic equipment in Lyon. At the centennial of cinema, Harun Farocki revisited the Lumière Brothers’ classic short in his essay film Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik / Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), assembling a compilation of scenes throughout the history of cinema, all featuring the factory gate as a threshold between work and leisure. While work itself often remains invisible in movies, so Farocki argues, the release into leisure is where individual life, dreams, and aspirations begin to take shape.
Picking up on Farocki, Thomas Elsaesser writes: “what the Lumière film says, in effect, is that as these workers are leaving the factory, the cinema (in which they see themselves) is already waiting for them. This would be the cinema’s allegorical truth for the first half of the twentieth century. […] Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, ever more workers indeed left the factory for good, replaced not just by robots and software programs but also by screens and monitors, of which the first screens in Paris and Lyon were the innocent antecedents.”1 Elsaesser highlights Farocki’s two interrelated interests throughout many of his films and later video installations: the observation of routines and practices of work along with “an equally enduring concern with simulation, make-believe, and role-play, often connected with the eye – in particular, with its ability to act as a control instance and as an organ of monitoring and surveillance but also as an organ easily deceived in its assumption of knowledge, and occasionally also deceived for pleasure and play.”2 Probing the nexus between vision, performance, and work has been a key concern in our discussions on documentary forms.
In 2011 Farocki initiated an online collection of short videos, Eine Einstellung zur Arbeit / Labor in a Single Shot, based on workshops held together with Antje Ehmann in cities around the globe. Documenting various kinds of labor – paid or unpaid, manual or mechanical, analog or digital – participants in these workshops produced short videos. Antje Ehmann, who has continued holding workshops beyond Harun Farocki’s death in 2014, kindly allowed us to borrow the template of the project for our course. We asked students to read the concept description of Labor in a Single Shot, watch as many videos as they could, then proceed to conceptualize and shoot their own video in this spirit. The rules for producing these single shot films are simple: videos cannot be longer than two minutes, only single shots, no cuts or time manipulation allowed. Time constraints not withstanding, videos should have a well-conceived structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Creative camera work would convey “the story.” While Farocki and Ehmann did not allow cell phone cameras to avoid sloppy cinematography, we allowed students to work with cell phones. Each video aspires to be viewed as a miniature that captures a take/attitude (Einstellung) toward work – paid or unpaid – in our historical moment.
Changing conditions of work are key topics of our time. Shifts from production to service, the loss of jobs due to offshoring and automation, unemployment-related changes in livelihoods and environments were much-discussed concerns already before the current pandemic. Lockdowns, supply chain interruptions, and production slowdowns have amplified transformations in the labor market and in the home. Real-time video communication, for example, has reconfigured many collaborations that used to require in-person presence as remote interactions. As people stare at screens 24/7, what happens to their sense of time and place, demarcations between labor and leisure, housework and paid work, benefits and rights? What is considered “essential work”? Are the essential jobs of manual labor changing as well? How are workers expected to reskill? How do people work these days, and how do they foresee working in the future?
The videos shot by students seek to explore such questions by thinking cinematically – with and through moving images. They move from paid and unpaid work in the home to work in public spaces in the urban environment, including work by non-human actors.
- Thomas Elsaesser, “The Body and the Senses: Harun Farocki on Work and Play.” Roy Grundman and Peter J. Schwartz, eds. Labour in a Single Shot: Critical Perspectives on Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki’s Global Video Project. Amsterdam University Press, 2022: 183-204: 187.
- Ibid., 184.
Blue Cords by Giuliana Gentile Lirio
My concept for this short film was to document not only the labor of researching the stock market for the purpose of investing, but also the labor that technology endures to facilitate this for us. For this reason, I chose to divide the film into two parts: one focusing on the labor within the cords and one focusing on human labor. For the first part, the camera follows the length of the cords, mimicking how we would expect electricity to flow to the laptop. My intention was for it to feel like the cord was never-ending, just like the time spent looking at the monitor or the amount of human and technological energy that goes into this form of labor. When the camera arrives at the computer, we get an out-of-focus image of its screen that turns out to be graphs, and red and green color-coded data points. I wanted the realization of the form of labor to occur slowly as we gently zoom out to see someone’s hands scrolling and then their face observing the screen until the screen finally gets into focus. I meant for this to mimic our eyes’ labor of focusing after staring at a screen for an extended period of time. Then, we are able to focus on the labor on the screen before moving on to the subject’s facial expression, reminding us of the mental labor that goes behind minimal cursor movements. I chose blue light as it represents technology and imagination, concepts that are prevalent in this piece.
Paid Housework by Ziteng Wang
This video addresses how women shift from unpaid housework to paid labor in modern society by showing two house cleaners cleaning a kitchen. Historically, the traditional family structure forced women to take responsibility for housework without salary, limiting their rights to work outside the home. As a result, women did not acquire independent financial means or other labor skills. Male family members took women’s labor at home for granted; women’s free labor in the house was not met with much gratitude. Women’s housework is considered repetitive and easy. My video shows that housework deserves reasonable pay like any other kind of labor. I chose pure observation without any intervention, adopting a high angle perspective to offer complete observation of the entire work area, to mimic a surveillance camera’s view. The viewer looks down from above like an employer monitoring the effectiveness of his workforce. This point of view implies a sense of control, which aims to make the audience uncomfortable. At the same time, this gaze also replicates the contempt for women’s housework in the traditional family. The camera gradually pans down to parallel at the end of the video, suggesting a shift toward treating housework as equal labor. The last scene shows some money – a tip along with a “thank you” note – to exhibit grateful respect for female laborers.
Quarter Court by Cameron Britt
The concept of my film is to play with the comfortability and invasiveness of being an observer. The film purposefully takes place in a public area or apartment laundromat located in the parking lot. The film takes on an eerie and invasive feel as it creeps towards the subject. The windows and fluorescent lights act like a beacon for observational gaze. The windows are almost inviting to the camera. With the observation and acknowledgment only going one way, tension begins to build. As the camera gets closer, you can see that the woman is doing her laundry. This was of particular interest to me as I have always seen laundry as a passive and attention-less activity. This particular subject was performing this task in private but at center stage. Many of my classmates thought that my video was interesting as it showed labor that often remains invisible. The subject is seen on a phone call. She is in this conversation by choice, inviting welcome company, while in the spotlight in an environment where she is subject to nonconsensual observation. The camera exists as part of this group, or so it seems at first. The camera cast a shadow, which I included to highlight the viewer’s intrusive observation. It is not until the last five seconds where the tension is released when the subject confronts the camera and audience with a laugh.
Painting with Ease by Veronica Jacques
No one really thinks about the work that goes into painting homes. We either paint because the walls need some fixing or want to change the color entirely. It’s interesting how we all live in homes that are painted, but we never really think about the fact that there were people who labored to paint our homes, and that walls sometimes hold layers upon layers of different colors that have a life span and story of their own. For my labor in a single shot, I featured my boyfriend painting a room in our home. I waited for the right moment to arise organically as we just moved into a new home. When I did start filming, I featured a form called the kino eye, capturing events as they evolve in a natural form, not planned for the camera. I knew I wanted to utilize panning and tilting because I wanted a way to make the simple act of painting more dynamic and to feature elements about the subject, such as his clothes, and his environment, the chair he is standing on, and the lamp used to light his workspace. I found the way he was painting meditative and relaxing. This made me think of labor being something that doesn’t always have to be hard but something that can also be enjoyed. My boyfriend paints the ceiling in the late hours of the night while he listens to a podcast, while in his loungewear, barefoot. He works at a slow pace. As I tilt the camera, I feature him standing on a chair moving slowly as he focuses on painting the section of the room. He is adding yet another layer of paint, and another story, to our walls.
Serving Stance by Chloe Murray
I filmed construction workers supervising a ditch that was being welded in front of the Claremont Hotel Club & Spa. The shot starts with the smoke rising from the ditch they had dug (as close of a shot as I could safely get), surrounded by construction cones and several wires. I tilted the camera up to focus on the construction workers socializing as they watched over the site. In the background, there are members of the Claremont country club as they play tennis. In the contrast between these two forms of labor, I found it interesting to observe the social components of labor: the conversation of the construction workers and the practice of tennis as a more leisurely form of activity between opponents. As I pan to capture the hotel structure perched on a hill above the courts, there is another worker within the frame who is fixing the fence. With the grandness of the white building as its American flag blows in the wind, I find that the hotel epitomizes the bourgeois ideal of obtaining true luxury, which we tend to value in our society. Having the hotel juxtaposed against the typical “blue-collar” work of the construction workers and the repairman, I was hoping to open space for commentary on the more voluntary labor of the wealthy (presented by the tennis matches in the background, on courts which require a club membership) vs. the labor that arises out of necessity (for income and in order to maintain our urban structures). Given the strong social connotations of this contrast, it is easy to pick a side—either judging the grandeur of the club members or pitying the grittier labor of construction workers. In an effort to avoid this polarization—or as Bill Nichols explains, perpetuating “an ethics of social concern and charitable empathy”—I hoped to construct an open exchange between the two categories of subjects. To illustrate this exchange, I timed the shot (and its duration) according to the movement of the subjects. Quickly panning back to the workers just as the tennis player in the background serves the ball, the shot does not linger on a particular position for too long, instead allowing the subjects to shift the gaze themselves.
There is no other Option by Ellie Grintsaig
My original idea for this project was to illustrate the labor involved in self-care. Self-care is meant to be a relaxing process that focuses on the individual, yet it can often begin to feel laborious—when we’re only partaking in these rituals to become a better laborer. I decided to capture unscripted labor at the softball practice of a team I work with. In this film, I wanted to express the multi-faceted arrangements of labor. There are the girls, who are calling out in agony as they’re forced to run countless laps, yet still stubbornly carry on with the practice. There’s the male coach, who is not required to run, yet he chooses to participate in solidarity. There are the parents, seated in the distance, looking on at the children engaging in labor. And there’s the main female coach who instructs the team that there “is no other option,” and that they must utilize every ounce of energy to be successful in their labor. Another added element is the camera itself. As I moved throughout the practice, I noticed that the players pushed themselves harder when they saw the camera, not wanting to be captured giving up. This film draws a clear distinction between “sport as leisure and sport as work.” These girls, I’d argue, see softball as both leisure and labor.
The Work Before the Work by Piper Crabtree
There are so many variations of labor that take place in an airport. There are the operators of the whole operation up in the control tower. There are the pilots that fly the planes. There are the workers that keep the airport running. There are the people in charge of filling up the planes with gas before departure. Their work enables the planes to be operable. Yet their work is often overlooked, hidden behind the surface of what one sees when a plane is being flown. My film captures a fixed long shot of a plane being filled up with fuel. There is no one else in the frame other than the workers. When the workers depart there is still no one in the frame. No one realizes that they came in and did their work that allows for the subsequent work of flying the plane. The off-screen sound of planes flying through the airspace above is important as it suggest anticipated take-off after completion of the work that is being done in the frame. The sound of the engine roaring is only possible because workers have filled the tanks. I chose an observational mode in capturing these sounds and sights. The fixed frame allows the viewer to ponder and read the movements and sounds they are experiencing as it all happens in real time. The shot concludes with the fuel truck leaving the frame with only the plane remaining in frame. The plane is at the center of all the labor of all the labor performed in the airfield. There would be no work on this field without the airplane.
The Walk to Work by Penelope Martindale
Although my topic shifted quite dramatically over the course of this project –– from focusing on a social preacher on Sproul Plaza to a University of California student employee –– in both cases I was interested in what “counted” as work. Initially, I wanted to film a person I see on Sproul frequently preaching to students about the ills of Amazon, Uber, and air travel and how they are the culprits of climate change. I was curious if he considered this work, but unfortunately, he declined my request to film him for fear that it would somehow get out into the world. Hearing that, I had to change my topic. Thus, I focused on my own job as an usher captain at Cal Performances. At a daytime performance at Hearst Hall, I filmed my coworker and fellow usher captain Mateo walking from outside of the venue into a back room to clock in and then walk back out to join the rest of our coworkers. When I filmed this, I was originally interested in capturing the downtime before the show started, asking if hanging out together in conversation counted as work because those participating were being paid. However, after watching my own footage back, I realized the film focused more on the walk to and from the little machine that tracks working time. This focus was reflected in what my classmates noticed, though some questioned whether or not they would have contemplated this had I not mentioned it in the description of my film. Ultimately, these questions and the focus on labor in this course, instead of narrowing my definition of work, expanded it and brought not burdensome contemplation but increased curiosity.
Stop and Stare by Mayte Leon
I had originally planned to film a particular street vendor on the busy streets of San Francisco, but the intended subject was not present on the day I visited the city. Coming from a town where street vendors can often be seen, I am appreciative of the hard work they put in from day to night, and I wanted my single shot to work as some sort of “homage” for that very labor to which they devote themselves. I stopped at a crosswalk and spotted a group of musicians on the other side. With my single shot, I hope to show that entertainment requires hard labor. People see entertainment as fun but tend to forget that performers rely on this type of labor to support themselves financially. These performers work extremely hard at giving it their all. Moving to the right from where I was situated on the street corner, I turned on my phone camera and started filming the musicians. With small movements, the camera is able to capture the many visual layers of this particular area. People crossing the crosswalk at this busy corner and across the street in the far back come into vision. Moving images within the video can be seen in the distance, and I hoped to have zoomed in on them, but I was utilizing an old device, which would have made the video look like it was lagging. Multiple cars drive in the back, while some pass at the front of the camera. At the center of it all, from the way the camera is positioned, are the musicians working hard to provide entertainment for passersby and for themselves. Their hard labor does not go unnoticed as some pedestrians drop money into their bucket, content at the performance being given from them. The lively music that drowns out the other sounds of the city gives off a pleasant feeling to the single shot overall. From the active people walking here and there, the cars passing by, and the sound, all of these components work to highlight the busy aspect of this corner; in a way, they are also working to focus our attention on the musicians, who remain seated at all times.
The Heart of Chinatown by Madai Leon
My single take shot focuses on capturing the people of Chinatown working in their street markets. Visiting Chinatown often on the weekends, I have come to witness the abundance of workers it requires to maintain a business – from the produce distributors to the market vendors to the consumers. The individuals who have established and continue to run these businesses wake up during the early hours to set up for the day and go on to provide their labor for long hours. While most visitors regard Chinatown as a “must-see tourist location,” it is beyond this superficial label. With this in mind, I wanted for my single take to not disrupt the workers, and I rather chose to place myself from a good distance and film them as they carried on with their labor of selling their produce; my single take was shot during the Chinese New Year celebrations and therefore, we see multiple people pass by as they get prepared for the festivities. My shot remains stationary as it observes and captures; through this observation I came to notice that these workers are relatively older individuals moving around with their produce, all while being carefully masked and covered up due to the ongoing pandemic. Despite being of old age, these workers still provide their labor to sell to visitors and to their own communities. Without their labor, this community would not have sustained such a rich history to continue through food, and so I want to highlight the hard of a labor of maintaining a culture as well as introducing it to others.
The Labor of Nature by Heather Fergus
For my labor in a single shot, I chose to film the labor that is in nature. The first thing that came to mind when I thought of labor was the daily labor of a bee pollinating a flower. It is a repetitive form of work but so important to the survival and growth of plants. Furthermore, although essential to an ecosystem, this daily work largely goes unnoticed and is a silent form of labor. More now than ever, we need to reevaluate our relationship to nature and the environment, with issues such as climate change and the pandemic. Although we have created a built environment, we are still very much a part of and reliant on the inner workings of nature. In my single shot, the bee I filmed is busy at work pollinating lavender flowers, but in the background there are voices of people walking through the park and looking out at the view of San Francisco. The voices and sounds help to create the sense of being in the midst of the park being filmed. Among this, the bee is working to survive but also keeps the ecosystem thriving. Although the park visitors don’t notice the labor of the bee, they share a part of the environment with the bee, and the beauty of the flowers and park is supported by the bee’s labor. The shot then zooms out to show the view of the city, the larger metropolitan city of which the people, bee, and park are all a part. At the end, the shot zooms back to the bee to show that the bee is still silently working, both being supported by and supporting the ecosystem of the city.
Pretty Slaves in a Tank by Grisis Yu
I chose to shoot fish in the aquarium. The fish in the aquarium perform labor that is paid and unpaid. The fish produce labor by swimming in the aquarium, and their labor is used by human spectators for entertainment and education (learning about these fish and biodiversity in the ocean). The fish are paid in permanence, which is, they have a seemingly safe and fixed area or home, but at the same time they are considered unpaid labor, because the proceeds obtained through them (money from tickets, aquarium store related products etc.) are not exchanged for something of equal value or given directly as money to them. Moreover, when they are caught from the ocean without being asked in advance, they lose the freedom they once might have had, and in exchange are placed in a giant boxed place, in a human-simulated marine ecosystem for the rest of their lives.
This blog post was co-edited by Prof. Deniz Göktürk and Qingyang Freya Zhou.