Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ film is a creative, often lyrical study of laundromat service workers in New York City – women who do a hard job for far too little money. Using a mixture of actors and real industry workers, the directors create a portrait of economic oppression and human resilience that provokes dismay and empathy in equal measure – and yet the hard dose of reality is leavened with poetic visual touches and a warm, humanist tone.
Faced with the challenge of making a documentary for which the voices of undocumented immigrants were crucial, filmmakers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker had to push the boundaries of convention. The result is The Washing Society, which will see its Canadian première at the Vancouver International Film Festival, as part of the festival’s Impact programming.
As it relates to my comment/question about a possible Marxist interpretation of the interviews with the laundromat workers, I was thinking about Jean Rouch’s interviews with factory workers in Paris from his 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer. In the film, the anthropologist Edgar Morin interviews a Renault factory worker who explains his condition of exploitation and the reproduction of his labor that is necessary to be able to work the next day.
The year 1968 signaled revolution, but that call for change was heard differently, unevenly. In the streets, it was louder than a bomb and echoed with joy; in mansions and police precincts, an incomprehensible tune sung in an impossible language. A student in Mexico City goes to a demonstration, a communist in Tokyo buys a saxophone, a CIA operative spies on Black nationalists in Cleveland, and the Los Angeles rich look in the mirror and don’t recognize their faces. This film series explores the many manifestations of this global upheaval through cinema.
Hand touches skin. Skin touches skin. Clothing, too, touches skin. And there are still other hands that touch the clothing that touches the skin of others. This particular touch involves cleaning. It eradicates every residue, stain, odor and variety of dirt that attaches to that second skin we call clothing.
The Washing Society takes a wistful and poetic stroll through various New York City Laundromats—some that have since gone out of business—and shows the experiences of the people who work there. Many of these people—the majority women—are badly paid, come from poor neighborhoods and foreign countries.
Don’t be thrown by the title and classification. This is no dry, droning documentary. This is a slice of life, a celebration of humanity from the historic Atlanta washerwomen to the New York City workers of today in swirling brilliant color — color that comes from the flesh, hair and eyes of the workers, and the mountains of laundry they deal with every day, underwear, socks, sheets, shirts. One has to see it to believe it.
“Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor” creates a path that moves from the gesture of an initial encounter to an aesthetic manifestation — through the manipulation of images, textures and movements. In this way, the film presents a different kind of documentary, bringing to the forefront a human landscape that opens up through intimate contact between the director and three women pioneers in the history of experimental film.