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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.

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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

Criterion Channel streaming premiere with 7 other films, Oct. 2021.

Premiere
‘Punto de Vista’ International Documentary Film Festival, Pamplona, Spain

New York Premiere
BAMcinemaFest, Brooklyn Academy of Music; Indie Memphis Audience Award “Departures” (Avant-Garde) Category

Awards: Black Maria Film Festival Juror’s Stellar Award;

Festivals and Other Screenings: 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; Queens World Film Festival; National Civil Rights Museum; Chicago Undergound Film Festival; Downtown Community Television; Scribe Video Center, Philadelphia; Cinema Parallels, Bosnia Herzogovina, 2021; Kinesthesia Festival, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 2021; Metrograph Theater, NYC, 2021.

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; University of Mississippi Center for the Study of Southern Culture; Yale University, African American Studies Dep’t.

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.

For inquiries about rentals or purchases please contact Canyon Cinema or the Film-makers’ Cooperative. And for international bookings, please contact Kino Rebelde


Post-Screening Conversation for
WASHING SOCIETY + CLOTHESLINES +A MONTH OF SINGLE
Metrograph, NYC
December 2021

Co-Directors Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker with special guest feminist scholar Silvia Federici in a post-screening conversation. Hosted by Emily Apter.

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.

 

¡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!

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

Video:
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:
laundry-workers-center-united.org

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.”

 

 

 

 

Third Man Records to feature experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs

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Third Man Records to feature experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs
by Joe Nolan
2015 

Knoxville-born Quentin Tarantino is argu- ably Tennessee’s most important contribution to popular film, but there’s another filmmaker whose personal, sometimes mesmerizing, body of work has made her the Volunteer State’s most visible ambassador to the world of ex- perimental film. Lynne Sachs is currently a New Yorker, but the Memphis-born director will be in Nashville for The Light and Sound Machine’s presentation of Yes/No: The Cinema of Lynne Sachs on Thursday, Sept. 17, aTt 8 p.m. in the Blue Room at Third Man Records. Sachs will be presenting a selection of films from her 30-year career followed by a Q&A event.

Sachs divides many of her movies into two categories: “Yes” films and “No” films. In film- maker and critic Kevin B. Lee’s short video essay, Yes and No Films, he interviews Sachs about the distinctions between the two:

“I have a group of films I’ve made called my Yes films and I have a group of films called my No films. The Yes films are films where absolutely anything goes… Then I have the No films—but, No is not bad. The No films have a really clear idea, and I’m like quite focused.”

Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986) is one of the Yes films Sachs will show on Thursday. It pictures a woman putting on a black-and-white-checkered houndstooth coat. She then takes an avocado from a pantry and peels it before balancing the pit on the top of a glass of water. She sits at a table eating a meal—a man stops briefly at the table. The last scene pictures the woman putting on the coat again, inter-cut with shots of her sitting on the bed, seeming to comment about the author of a letter.

That might sound like a rather random ar- rangement of events, and it is, and that’s part of the beauty of Sach’s “anything goes” Yes films.

But it’s not the content that makes Still Life notable, it’s the context Sachs creates around it that lashes these rituals and actions into a more dynamic whole: During the first coat shots, a voice-over sounds like it’s reading from a script, describing “scene one” and then “scene two,” while the coat shots repeat themselves— the lack of repetition in the ongoing voice-over tells the viewer that the shot has been cut that way on purpose. This makes the viewer aware of the script and the editing as well as the woman and her coat. The film was made in the late 1980s but it speaks directly to the French New Wave films of the 1960s with their mischievous love of techniques that pointed cinema back at itself, not allowing audiences to get lost in the illusion of a seamless narrative. The use of mismatched scenes and voice-overs seems specifically out of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema and it’s no surprise that Sachs credits his Vivre Sa Vie as an influence here.

The poetic intimacies of nude images and naked interactions are the subject of the silent study of male and female forms, Drawn and Quartered (1986). I love the punning title here—the camera crawls around the “out- line” of necks and shoulders, along fingers and feet from the point of view of an artist’s hand drawing the figures. Sachs also divides her screen up into four quarters, nodding to male/female duality while also disorienting the viewer and turning the experience into a sensual confusion of androgynous play. Drawn is a No film that Sachs directed with strict limits she illuminates at the Fandor.com streaming film site:

“I shot a film on a roof with my boyfriend. Every frame was choreographed. Both of us took off our clothing and let the Bolex whirl and that was it. Pure and simple.”

Thursday’s screenings will also include Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (1987), which is a companion piece to Still Life; Investigation of a Flame (2001), an experimental portrait of Vietnam War peace activists; Photograph of Wind (2001), Sachs’s meditation on passing time and her growing daughter, Maya; Noa, Noa (2006), Sach’s exploration of childhood play with her daughter, Noa. Sachs will also show selected scenes from Every Fold Matters (2015) and screen her newest work, Starfish Aorta Collosus (2015).

Lynne Sachs Spotlight – “Women of Fix” on Fandor

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We are Spotlighting the “Women of FIX” on Fandor.

-What are some of the major obstacles you’ve met as a filmmaker?Convincing my 103 year old grandmother that what I do is worthy. I don’t think she will ever understand that creative pleasure, dare I say artistic recognition, has any worth whatsoever.  She measures success in $$.  One day, I hope she will applaud the fact that I have found something I simply love to do.

 

-What are some awesome moments you’ve had as a filmmaker?Spending weekly Tuesday mornings talking with Bruce Conner in his San Francisco studio; introducing my crying baby to Stan Brakhage; learning to edit from Gunvor Nelson; recording sound and syncing dailies with Trinh T. Minh-ha; dancing with my boyfriend and now husband Mark Street in a George Kuchar movie; hanging out with Craig Baldwin in his editing cave; taking my young daughters to Paris to spend a day with Chris Marker.

 

-What are your views on women in film and how the industry can help solve the problem of diversity?
Twenty years ago, I asked a group of college age students to name their favorite film directors.  No woman was on the list.  Then I asked them to name one woman director.  They found that task very difficult.  Then I asked them to name a single film made by a woman.  That resulted in a very short list, and for the most part they only knew a few female movie stars who had tried their hand at directing.  Not much has changed in the last two decades. Women filmmakers must make work that reflects their vision rather than embracing the point of view of a commercial industry ethos that, for the most part, refuses to recognize our view of the world.

 

-Tell us how Fandor’s FIX program has helped you!
Fandor’s FIX program has put my work in a eclectic, unpredictable, thought-provoking context where people discover my work through direct search and absolutely hilarious randomness. My most popular Fandor film is A Biography of Lilith, an experimental documentary about Adam’s first mate in the Garden of Eden. Lilith was expelled from the Garden, and thus history, because she wanted to be on top in sex.  Who knew that a feminist movie about gender politics, sensuality and the Bible would draw so much attention?