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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


Kennebec Journal Reviews “The Washing Society”


Maine International Film Festival, Central Maine

MIFF Movie Review: ‘Washing Society’

by J.P. Devine


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.


¡Despertar! – New York City Laundry Workers Rise Up

On June 28, 2018, laundry workers from El Barrio in New York City marched to the laundromat where they work. Their community and the Laundry Workers Center were there to support them.

This campaign is called “Awaken” and the fight is just beginning.
With the community at their backs, member leaders Juanita and Nicolas delivered their demands to the owner: Respect the minimum wage, respect our right to health and safety, and respect our dignity!

Nicolas Benitez-laundromat leader
Juana F. – laundromat leader
Mahoma López- Laundry Workers Center Co-Executive Director
Heleodora Viva- Street Vendor Project Member Leader

Camera – Lynne Sachs, co- director “The Washing Society” film
Editing- Rebecca Shappas
Production support: Rosanna Rodriguez, Laundry Workers Center Co-Executive Director; Padre Fabian Arias, Iglesia Sion; Lizzie Olesker, Co-Director “The Washing Society” film
Translation: Maria Scharron

For more information and to get involved:

Review of “The Washing Society” in Otro Cine Europa







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.

TWS_Poster_812x11_Laurels_20180606 (1)

Our collaborators include:
Laundry workers: Wing Ho, Lula Holloway, Margarita Lopez
Actors: Ching Valdes-Aran, Jasmine Holloway, Veraalba Santa
Cinematographer: Sean Hanley
Editor: Amanda Katz
Sound artist: Stephen Vitiello
Live Performance Producer: Emily Rubin, Loads of Prose

Festivals and Other Screenings: Premiere ‘Punto de Vista’ International Documentary Film Festival, Pamplona, Spain, March 8, 2018; New York Premiere BAMcinemaFest, Brooklyn Academy of Music; 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, Osnabrück, Germany; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC;  Anthology Film Archives, New York; Vancouver International Film Festival; Maine International Film Festival; Pacific Film Archive/ Berkeley Art Museum; Other Cinema, San Francisco; Indie Memphis Audience Award “Departures” (Avant-Garde) Category; Queens World Film Festival.

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; Fashion Institute of Technology; University of California, Berkeley.

Lynne’s co-director:

Lizzie Olesker is a writer, performer, and director in New York City where she creates theatrical works inspired by social and personal history.  Her plays include Dreaming Through History; Verdure; A Kind (of) Mother; and Embroidered Past, seen at the Public Theater, Cherry Lane, Clubbed Thumb, Dixon Place, Here, and New Georges.  Her solo performances include housework (St. Mark’s Church) and Infinite Miniature (Invisible Dog and Ohio Theater).  Collaborations with other artists include the Talking Band (performing at La Mama and on international tour), Lenora Champagne (Tiny Lights) and upcoming with Louise Smith (Dorothy Lane). She’s received support from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council and the Dramatists Guild. She teaches playwriting at the New School and New York University where she’s active in the local UAW union for adjunct faculty.

Selected Press:

“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.” “Bringing the Invisible to Light: Interview with Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker” Cynthia Ramsay, Jewish Independent, Vancouver, BC, Canadahttp://www.jewishindependent.ca/bringing-the-invisible-to-light/ )

“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.” (J.P. Devine, Kennebec Journal, https://www.centralmaine.com/2018/07/16/j-p-devine-miff-movie-review-washing-society-charlie-chaplin-lived-here/ )

“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 classicism) on an American Dream that seems to want to scrub away every last trace of its own identity.” (Revolution in the Air & Theories of Weightlessness, Otro Cines Europa by Victor Esquirol, Punto de Vista International Film Festival, Pamplona, Spain,  www.otroscineseuropa.com/aires-revolucion-teorias-la-ingravidez )

“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. What we hear – sometimes without subtitles – rings with authenticity, and it’s the details as much as the general situation of these workers that are alarming. One woman calculates that she washes around 1,000 articles of clothes a day; a “part-time” worker says she’s worked in laundromats for 45 years. How many socks is that?  In voiceover, we hear that one of the goals the directors have is “calling attention to something that isn’t paid attention to – hidden labour.” On that score, their film is a success, but there is much else of value here besides journalistic advocacy; with their playful stylistic touches and creative approach to storytelling, Olesker and Sachs have turned politics into art – and vice versa.” Alan Franey, Vancouver International Film Festival, 2018.

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.