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El Otro Ciné: “I Nearly Touch You” Review of “The Washing Society”

El Otro Cine: “I Nearly Touch You”

I Nearly Touch You
By Cristina Mancero

Reprinted from the journal El Otro Cine, published by
Encuentros del Otro Cine, Quito, Ecuador

March 2018

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 touch of skin upon skin can become something routine. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for breakups and divorces. Touching the second skins of foreign bodies, washing them, rinsing them, spinning them, drying them, folding them is also part of a routine. But divorce doesn’t necessarily follow because the ones carrying out this particular routine depend on it for their survival.

Who would suggest that touching the second skin of others is exploitation? Working long hours. Earning minimum wage. Doing the same job hour after hour, day after day.

It’s an invisible job and the ghosts are all around us. The skin leaves traces and by those traces it is possible to form a picture of the person who quietly dropped off her second skin so that it could later be delivered, sweet smelling and wrinkle-free, in a sealed bag. Guaranteed clean.

Inside every bag of second skins that arrives at the Laundromat are countless traces. “By their impurities ye shall know them.” By their garments, also.

This cleanliness routine comes close to the skin: I nearly touch you. I nearly connect with your skin, but in the end all that remains of our encounter is lint, dust, a few flakes of that same dry skin.

Jean-Luc Nancy, in his essay “Essential Skin,” says that there are little things, minutiae like “a coffee bean or chiffon” that can get under our skins, “their appearance making an impression on us. Without even realizing it, roughness, softness, jerking, striations, vapors, urges, and murkiness all enter into our skin. The skin feels, handles, gathers, and deals with everything we see, hear, breathe.”

Those who carry out the cleaning of second skins take this one step further, they make things happen: they take the second skins full of traces and wipe them clean. And in order to do that, they must stand guard against the exploitation and monotony that kill. Invisibility. The weight of each quarter that feeds the machines and the machines that will, in turn, feed them.

“When it’s grasped,” writes Nancy, “skin is as dissociated as it possibly can be from its nature as a sort of envelope or boundary: instead it has the appearance of dough, paste, or mortar, of ribbons, laces, straps, bands, or liana, or of banners, and sails that are unfurled, along with the rigging used to haul them down. Skin soars and is heaped up; it is lustrous, creased, and moist.” This is what happens with The Washing Society: it juxtaposes skins and second skins, their grasping at the boundaries. “I’m here,” says one of the washerwomen, “but this is not who I am.”

Olesker and Sachs, the film’s directors, experiment with the craft of documentary and the craft of laundering. Their characters go back and forth between the real and the fictitious, putting themselves in other people’s skins in order to tell stories of second skins. The skins of each craft grasps the other and together reveal the nakedness, the lint, the dust, the flakes.

Translation: Philip Kay

Original Spanish version:

Casi te toco

La mano toca la piel. La piel toca la piel. La ropa toca la piel, también. Y hay manos que tocan la ropa de otras pieles. Ese tocar implica limpieza. Se ejecuta el despojo de todo residuo, mancha, hedor y suciedad de una segunda piel: la ropa.

Tocarse piel con piel puede volverse una rutina. Quizás sea esa una de las causas de separaciones y divorcios. Tocar la segunda piel de cuerpos ajenos y lavarla, enjuagarla, centrifugarla, secarla, doblarla es también parte de una rutina. Pero ahí no hay un divorcio, necesariamente, porque quienes lo hacen se apoyan en esa actividad para sobrevivir.

¿Quién diría que tocar la segunda piel de los otros es tocar de cerca la explotación laboral? Trabajar en horarios extendidos. Ganar lo mínimo. Hacer lo mismo día a día, hora a hora.

Este es un trabajo invisible y los fantasmas están por todos lados. La piel deja huella en la segunda piel. Por esas huellas es posible armarse una idea de la persona que ha dejado su segunda piel a buen recaudo, para que luego le sea entregada sin arrugas, con buenos olores y en bolsas selladas. La garantía de la limpieza.

Se encuentran tantas huellas y objetos en cada bolsa de segundas pieles que llegan a las lavanderías. “Por sus suciedades los conoceréis”. Por las prendas que visten también.

Esta ejecución rutinaria de limpieza se acerca a la piel: casi te toco. Casi me conecto con tu piel, pero lo que queda como prueba del encuentro son pelusas y polvo; escamas de la misma piel.

Jean-Luc Nancy, en su ensayo Dar piel, dice que hay detalles, minucias, como “un grano de café o un jirón” que pueden meterse en la piel, “imponerle sus aspectos, sus aires. Sin que nos podamos poner en guardia frente a ello, entran a nuestra piel asperezas, blanduras, convulsiones, estrías, humos, pulsiones y turbaciones. La piel palpa, maneja, recoge y trata todo aquello que vemos, oímos y respiramos”.

Las ejecutoras de la limpieza de las segundas pieles dan un paso más a allá, dan pie: toman la segunda piel llena de huellas y las borran. Y para hacerlo, deben ponerse en guardia ante la explotación y la rutina que mata. La invisibilidad. El peso de cada moneda de 25 centavos que alimenta a las máquinas y las máquinas que luego las alimentarán a ellas.

Dice Nancy: “cuando se hallan en el abrazo, las pieles se separan tanto como es posible de su naturaleza de envoltura y de frontera; toman más bien un aire de amasijo, de goma, de argamasa, o aun de cintas, cordones, cinchos, vendas y lianas, también de banderas, velas desplegadas y cordajes que las arrían. Las pieles levantan el vuelo y se amontonan, se lustran, se arrugan y se humedecen”. Pasa esto con La sociedad del lavado: la yuxtaposición de pieles y segundas pieles, sus abrazos en la frontera. “Yo estoy aquí”, dice la trabajadora, “pero esto no es mío”.

Olesker y Sachs, las directoras de La sociedad del lavado, experimentan con el oficio documental y con el oficio del lavado. Nos muestran performances de personajes que oscilan entre lo real y lo ficticio; que se ponen en la piel de otros para contar historias sobre segundas pieles. Se abrazan, pues, las pieles de ambos oficios, y nos muestran la desnudez, las pelusas, el polvo y las escamas.

El Telégrafo (Quito, Ecuador) Reviews “The Washing Society”

“The Washing Society,” El Telégrafo (Quito, Ecuador)

“The Washing Society,” an Intimate and Social Portrait.

El Telégrafo (Ecuador) May 15, 2018

In Quito’s Metropolitan Cultural Center hangs a large painting from 1939 by the Ecuadorian artist Germania Paz y Miño called “Lavanderas” (Washerwomen). Three women are working. One is taking down washing from a line, another is scrubbing clothing on a flat rock and a third is nursing her child. The composition juxtaposes the force of these women’s labor and mothering against the white laundry—almost certainly somebody else’s—into which women’s social and emotional worlds have always been wrapped up.

Although she had a critical eye, Paz y Miño was not a polemicist. In fact, due to the power of her works, especially her sculptures, in 1940 she was awarded a grant to study in New York’s New School for Social Research, where Camilo Egas served as studio director and her teacher.

The playwright Lizzie Olesker arrived in Quito last week to present The Washing Society, a film she co-directed with Lynne Sachs, in the Documentary Film Festival (EDOC) . During her travels around town, Olesker visited the Cultural Center and was astonished by Paz y Miño’s painting and the way it related to her film. It showed how, right until today, women have been historically tied to domestic and poorly paid jobs, even when their labor is focused on the care of others—in this case on their clothing, which is a kind of second skin.

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.

Characterized by Olesker as a “hybrid documentary,” the film mixes reportage with performance and poetry. It gathers workers’ testimonies and translates them into corporeal exercises on the part of actresses who inhabit the skins of the washerwomen.

“One dimension of documentary film is its performativity,” Olesker told me in a cafeteria at La Floresta. “For this film we did a lot of research on gender theory and feminism. We especially relied on the work of the historian Tera W. Hunter, who studies the 1881 Washing Society strike.”

This is the first collaboration between Olesker (writer, director and performer) and Lynne Sachs, who makes films, installation art and improvisations and projects for the web that strive to create a dialog between personal and historical experiences.

One of Sachs’s finest films is Your Day Is My Night, which deals with the Chinese immigrant community in New York, where people often live in shared rooms with up to eight beds.

This is Olesker’s first film and grew out of a lecture a friend invited her to give in a New York Laundromat. After that, the playwright developed a site-specific performance and asked to Sachs to work with her on an audiovisual component.

“Domestic workers, sex workers, caregivers, washerwomen all struggle with the idea of touching the body, of working in an intimate way,” says Olesker.

“I’m interested in domestic labor as a subject; it’s a fundamental part of women’s history, of my own experience and of our mothers’ lives,” she added. Her film plays with the fictitious and the factual, the material world and the dreamworld, the beautiful and the crude.

Translation: Philip Kay

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Kennebec Journal Reviews “The Washing Society”

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Maine International Film Festival, Central Maine

MIFF Movie Review: ‘Washing Society’

by J.P. Devine

https://www.centralmaine.com/2018/07/16/j-p-devine-miff-movie-review-washing-society-charlie-chaplin-lived-here/

July 16, 2018

This week the Maine International Film Festival will proudly present a double bill of two 45-minute documentaries: “Charlie Chaplin Lived Here” by Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas; and the most important presentation of this or any year’s film festival, the magical “Washing Society,” a brilliant documentary by Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs.

In July of 1888, a group of African-American washerwomen in Atlanta, Georgia, shook off the heat and humidity to move towards the impossible thing for former slaves to do. They organized themselves to acquire better wages and working conditions. They decided to strike.

There were 20 of them at the time. They went door to door in the city, and raised awareness and recruited sisters.

In three weeks, they grew in numbers from 20 to 3,000 members. That’s a lot of sweaty white folks’ laundry, and the strike worked.

The great forces of white supremacy went to work, as they do even to this day, to suppress the movement.

The women sent an ultimatum. I quote: “We the members of our society, are determined to stand to our pledge and make extra charges for washing, and we have agreed, and are willing to pay $25 or $50 for licenses as a protection, so we can control the washing for the city. We can afford to pay these licenses, and will do it before we will be defeated, and then we will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices, as the city has control of our husbands’ work at their prices. Don’t forget this. We hope to hear from your council Tuesday morning. We mean business this week or no washing.”

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.

The film ends with a chilling narration that speaks of the end of an era and these establishments.

“Things change. My neighborhood laundromat where I used to wash my clothes has been replaced by a cafe and clothing shop. Most of the city laundromats have disappeared.

“Now there is an app with a woman’s name. Not a she, but an ‘It,’ a laundry service on your phone that picks up your clothes at 10 p.m., moved down a street to a catacomb somewhere, to be done in a machine that runs all night.

“With the sunrise your clothes will be returned to you. You’ll never see those hands or the person they belong to, it’s guaranteed.”

Things change, indeed.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

 

Review of “The Washing Society” in Otro Cine Europa

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Revolution in the Air & Theories of Weightlessness
review in Otro Cines Europa by Victor Esquirol
Punto de Vista International Film Festival, Pamplona, Spain
March 9, 2018

Original at: www.otroscineseuropa.com/aires-revolucion-teorias-la-ingravidez

“Yesterday (International Women’s Day) at Punto de Vista International Film Festival in Pamplona everything got scrambled.  Or, better yet, revolutionized.  Several screenings had to be postponed because even the festival bubble isn’t completely impenetrable, or, if it is, it at least feigns the same kind of openness to the world that we ask of our finest films.  Out in the streets, women were saying Time’s Up, and Festival Director Garbiñe Ortega’s competition joined their cry.  That cry resounded not only through the programming, but also in the many voices conjured up on such a historic day.  Men and women reached parity. Not numerical parity but the very best kind. Balance—hell, justice—was achieved.  It came mainly by way of the most noble and honest of gestures: that of underlining the importance of something we never imagined had any importance at all, in this case the operation of washing machines.

The Washing Society, by Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs, makes the rounds of some of New York City’s more than 2,500 laundromats, local businesses that serve as a sociological laboratory.  Through the eyes of the two directors—and with apologies to Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985)—these unassuming storefronts take on the character of strategic observation posts occupied by Mandarin- and Spanish-speaking sentinels.

Olesker and Sachs zoom in—at a microscopic level—on the idea of the melting pot.  It’s an astonishing image: a skein of fibers and threads badly woven together.  So much so that there isn’t anything left to do but send the whole mess to the laundry.  What follows is an attempt to make sense of a nebula of colors that run circles around themselves, an image that, by its centrifugal force, creates an illusion of homogeneity.  Nonetheless, far from cohering, the elements emerge shaken up, not mixed together.  It’s an exercise in high-concept cinema to which Olesker and Sachs devote three quarters of an hour of film stock and many more quarters in tips, revealing the stains (of racism and classism) on an American Dream that seems to want to scrub away every last trace of its own identity.  Later, a few more turns around the neighborhood and their documentary morphs into performance art.  The voices go silent and the people we just heard interviewed get caught up in a cathartic dance that culminates in one final act of fading out, if not utter dissolution.  All they have left are the clothes they’re wearing.  Simple, comprehensible, and without question terrifying.”

 

 

 

 

The Washing Society

The Washing Society
a film by Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs

44 min. 2018

When you drop off a bag of dirty laundry, who’s doing the washing and folding?  THE WASHING SOCIETY brings us into New York City laundromats and the experiences of the people who work there. Collaborating together for the first time, filmmaker Lynne Sachs and playwright Lizzie Olesker observe the disappearing public space of the neighborhood laundromat and the continual, intimate labor that happens there.  With a title inspired by the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses, THE WASHING SOCIETY investigates the intersection of history, underpaid work, immigration, and the sheer math of doing laundry.  Drawing on each other’s artistic practices, Sachs and Olesker present a stark yet poetic vision of those whose working lives often go unrecognized, turning a lens onto their hidden stories, which are often overlooked.  Dirt, skin, lint, stains, money, and time are thematically interwoven into the very fabric of THE WASHING SOCIETY through interviews and observational moments.   With original music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, the film explores the slippery relationship between the real and the re-enacted with layers of dramatic dialogue and gestural choreography. The juxtaposition of narrative and documentary elements in THE WASHING SOCIETY creates a dream-like, yet hyper-real portrayal of a day in the life of a laundry worker, both past and present.

THE WASHING SOCIETY has received support from Workers Unite Film Festival, New York State Council on the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Women and Media Coalition, Puffin Foundation and Fandor FIX Filmmakers.

Our collaborators include acclaimed downtown actors Ching Valdes-Aran, Jasmine Holloway, Veraalba Santa, film editor Amanda Katz, cinematographer Sean Hanley and sound artist Stephen Vitiello.

Festival Screenings: Premiere ‘Punto de Vista’ International Documentary Film Festival, Pamplona, Spain, March 8, 2018; Black Maria Film Festival Juror’s Stellar Award; Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival; Athens Film and Video Festival; El Festival Internacional de Cine Documental “Encuentros del Otro Cine”, Ecuador; European Media Arts Festival, Osnabruck, Germany; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

University & College Screenings: Symposium on Black Feminist History, Carter Woodson Institute for African-American Studies, University of Virginia; University of Pennsylvania; Smith College; Mount Holyoke College; University of North Carolina; Dennison College; Amherst College; University of Buffalo; Tisch School of the Arts, New York University; Princeton University, Lewis Center for the Arts.

Biographies of Directors:

Lizzie Olesker is a writer/director/performer whose plays and performances explore the poetry of the everyday. Lizzie presented her solo piece TINY LIGHTS: Infinite Miniature at the New Ohio Theater and Invisible Dog in Brooklyn. She was a 2013-14 Audrey Fellow with New Georges, with her new play EMBROIDERED PAST about family hoarding and loss of nature. Other plays have been developed and presented at Dixon Place, Brave New World Repertory, Clubbed Thumb, the Cherry Lane Theater and the Public. Published in the Brooklyn Rail and Heinemann Press, she’s received support from the Brooklyn Arts Council, New York Foundation for the Arts and the Dramatists Guild. Also worked with the Talking Band (at the Ohio Theater and at Here) and teaches playwriting at Tisch/NYU and the New School.

Lynne Sachs makes films, installations, performances and web projects that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with every new project.  Between 1994 and 2006, she produced five essay films that took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany — sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions. Recently, after 25 years of making experimental documentaries, Sachs learned something that turned her filmmaking upside down. While working on Your Day is My Night (2013) in NYC’s Chinatown, she realized that her subjects were performing for the camera rather than revealing something completely candid about their lives. The process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. This moved Sachs toward a new type of filmmaking — she invited her subjects to become her collaborators — to work with her to make the film about their lives.  This new way of “working with reality” has inspired Sachs to present Your Day is My Night (2013) as well as Every Fold Matters (2016) as live film performances in alternative venues around New York City — including homeless shelters, labor union headquarters and laundromats as well as small non-commercial theaters.  In 2017, she completed her newest experimental documentary Tip of My Tongue which was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Creative Arts and premiered as the closing night film in the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight.

Sachs has made over 25 films. Her films have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival and Toronto’s Images Festival amongst others. They have also been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Walker Art Center, Wexner Center for the Arts and other venues nationally and internationally. The Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, Festival International Nuevo Cine in Havana and the China Women’s Film Festival have all presented retrospectives of Sachs’ films.

Since 2006, Sachs has collaborated with her partner, filmmaker Mark Street, in a series of playful, mixed-media performances called “The XY Chromosome Project”. Lynne holds an MFA in Film from the San Francisco Art Institute, an MA in Cinema from San Francisco State University, and a BA in History from Brown University. She has taught at New York University, Princeton, Hunter College, The New School, and the University of California, Berkeley.