Film Review: Workers by Jay Gearing and Ben Rogaly

Review by Dawn Lyon

Jay Gearing is an Independent Filmmaker based in Peterborough under the guise of Red 7 Productions. He directed and co-produced Workers. Twitter: @red7productions

Ben Rogaly teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Sussex. He researched and co-produced Workers. Twitter: @rogaly

You can read Jay and Ben’s blog about making the film here

Workers is about much more than the experience of work. It shows working people in some of the broader contexts of their lives – as musicians and poets, as community activists and informal teachers, as individuals whose employment conditions are onerous and whose creative capacities persist. It is a hopeful film despite the accounts it includes of terrible work experiences. And as it seeks to avoid stereotypes of misery or heroism, it is both a creative and analytical gesture in its own right. It documents the richness of workers’ lives and contributes to debates about work and its representation.

Workers was developed as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Creative Interruptions in which different projects explored the role of the arts and creativity in challenging exclusion in marginalised communities within and beyond the UK. The resulting publications, performances and exhibitions – including this film – show and promote the contribution that these communities make to creative cultures in Britain. Ten ‘chapters’ in Workers centre on ten lives, each presented from the point of view of a worker living in Peterborough, a city in eastern England. The predominantly working-class residents of Peterborough have long been a source of labour for seasonal work in the area in farming, warehouses, and in food packing and processing but their voices are rarely heard. Producers Jay Gearing and Ben Rogaly collaborated with food factory and warehouse workers to offer a space in which they might narrate their lives and tell the viewer about their everyday creative activities or interventions. Jay grew up in Peterborough where he both worked in factories and was involved in the local music scene. Ben has been a researcher in the city since 2011 and involved in community engagement and has live and ongoing connections with most of the narrators in the film. Both then are well-placed to make this film in the spirit of co-production of Creative Interruptions.

Workers takes the form of a collage of voice and moving image. The viewer ‘meets’ each person who looks straight at the camera in a close-up shot of their face which powerfully communicates their presence. There are places where the footage keeps the story going, insisting on it and pushing the viewer to feel more intensely what the narrator’s voice is telling us. Joanna Szczepaniak’s account is accompanied by a long camera shot driving on a dark road as she talks about the 2-3 hours of travel time to work close to Birmingham in addition to the 12 hour shift in the field. In another instance, a runner’s feet on a treadmill fill the screen as the viewer hears about the demands of warehouse work for ‘pickers’ such as Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Wojcik whose individual targets exceed what a marathon runner might meet. Given the strong commitment to collaboration in the project, I do wish that the film itself had exposed something about how it was put together. The voice and presence of the interviewers behind the camera are absent and the editorial process is not revealed.

One of the film’s important contributions is about time and temporality in food production and warehouse work. This includes waiting, time as scarce, tight schedules and speed across the day, the week and other scales. Precarity implies the heightened ‘calibration’ of workers’ bodies to the needs of capital. For many, the reach of the working day itself extends well beyond what might be considered to be decent working hours, starting ‘early’ including at 3am, 4am or 4.30am. The most precarious travel long distances and wait at informally-designated meeting places to be selected for a day’s work. They are dependent on other people’s (sometimes sexist) preferences or subject to the attitudes of agency staff. It’s quite simply ‘legal exploitation’, comments Armins Morozs. The effects of these forms of work are severe and spill into time ‘off’. Many of the narrators describe being ‘so tired’, ‘drained’ or ‘exhausted’. Furthermore, a lack of employment rights makes it difficult for them to take any rest time as people are ‘punished’ for their lack of availability even when unwell.

If the accounts in the film are moving stories of power, inequality, migration and precarity, they are also tales of belonging, solidarity, creativity and sheer possibility against the odds. There are moments of lightness for instance as Agnieszka Sobieraj recounts the ‘method’ the factory workers use to eat pieces of pineapple from the line. They tuck it into their elbows as they bend their arms to wipe their noses on their sleeves as they run from the cold. Laughter on the line is what keeps everyone going. Beyond the workplace, for Steve Moore, playing the guitar is both ‘pleasurable’ and ‘distracting’. It offers something in its own right as well as relief from the realities of his job. Similarly, for Miles Bunten, sitting at his drum kit reinforces his sense of self: ‘this is me’, he states. Joanna Szczepaniak uses her language skills to support others and to write herself whereas Agnieszka Coutinho found herself ‘teaching’ others to adapt to life in England. Despite his initial reluctance, Abdullah Majid has long gained satisfaction from ‘making a difference in other people’s lives’ through his community work and Armins Morozs’ involvement in a ‘hospitality exchange programme’ has brought him a wealth of contacts and connections. Friendships are also built in the film club that Agnieszka Sobieraj set up and runs. Natalina Cardoso enjoys creating a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach with her beautiful fruit arrangements whereas for Judita Grubliene poetry offers a space to express ‘what I have inside’ without a ‘mask’. Words have the power to heal, she remarks.

The structure of the film based on biographical chapters presents a series of individual lives. Other characters appear, if fleetingly, or are evoked in the narratives. At times, I would have liked to see more explicit recognition of the interconnections of their work with the paid and unpaid work of others. For instance, when Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Wojcik says that her daughter prepares food and drink for her after a shift, I wonder how old she is at this point and what this means for her own opportunities for creativity and social connection. However, as the chapters unfold, the sense of these lives as intertwined with one another grows. The food production factory in which the viewer sees carrots wriggling on the line as they are selected and sorted by workers appears in several of the chapters. Overall, this is not a set of individualised accounts but a critical, political intervention which deserves widespread attention.

Dawn Lyon is Reader in Sociology in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent, UK. She has published in the fields of the sociology of work, time, gender, migration, community, and visual and sensory sociology. She is particularly interested in the rhythms of work and working lives. Her book, What is Rhythmanalysis? was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.​ She tweets @dawnlyon65.

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