Director: Magda Malinowska
Running time: 52 mins
There is a school of thought on the political left when it comes to reporting on its activities which leaves me worried every time I see a progressive documentary is on the night’s agenda. To be fair, “don’t get it right; get it written” is not without merit as a rule of thumb – sit on your article, or in this case footage, for too long and the issue you hope to mobilise people for may well have moved on or petered out. However, all too often, this also means leftist reportage is slap-dash, amateurish, and without the emotional appeal to survive amid a sea of other smartphone recordings on YouTube.
How pleasantly surprised I was by Magda Malinowska’s documentary on the continuing women’s strike in Poland, then. Strajk Kobiet Trwa should be viewed by any both upcoming Directors and grass-roots campaigners as an exemplary attempt to mix reportage and political analysis, while taking the time to construct a narrative which will connect audiences who had previously had no exposure to the topic – and encourage them to act.
While ultimately the film addresses the international exploitation of women for free labour and an eternal supply of new workers, it is grounded among a group of municipal nursery staff in Poznań. They are women everyone will know – as well as being hard workers, loving partners, committed mothers; they are fully rounded human beings. They laugh, cry, argue, celebrate and struggle to survive, side by side.
Perhaps it is because of the Director’s own background that she is capable of nailing such a balance. Malinowska is herself a member of Inicjatywa Pracownicza trade union, as well as being co-organiser of the Social Congress of Women which the group played a role in establishing. As a result, she is capable of conveying the humanity of her comrades, alongside the importance of their work. At the same time, though, this only partially explains it, as it is a hurdle many other activist filmmakers fall at.
Showing the relatable every-day existence of these women is important for two reasons; first there is an inherent journalistic value to fighting the mainstream assumption that political agitation is artificially built by adrenaline-junky anarchists, or Das Kapital-wielding, dyed in the wool Marxists. Secondly, though, it helps to construct a narrative which can more tightly bind audiences to the issues tackled in the film, even if they are new to them.
As the women progress throughout their journey to battle City Hall for better wages, they connect with a diversity of other groups, including traditional trade unionists, pro-choice campaigners battling Poland’s Draconian ban on abortion, and at one point even Irish football fans. Having these relatively inexperienced individuals lead us through this crash-course in political education prevents us from being alienated from the experience, too. The same rules apply to a documentary here as a narrative fiction film, then. If we are to be taken to a new, unfamiliar environment, we need a Luke Skywalker to lead us through the Star Wars cantina, or we will lose interest.
Having kept the audience bedded into the action, Malinowska’s film then introduces the important second aspect to its journalistic juggling act; analysis. Correlating with the trials and tribulations of the unionised women, US scholar Silvia Federici explains how domestic reproductive labour produces and maintains the value-creating labour power. If this were the stand-alone video, it would be a taxingly dry watch, which only the converted would likely suffer through. However, as the audience is able to tie Federici’s analysis to the lived experiences on screen, it is able to tie one to the other.
While Strajk Kobiet Trwa is largely technically accomplished, however, it is not without its rough edges. One of the film’s key drawbacks is that its timeline is slightly muddled. Audiences are shunted back and forth between the origins of the carers’ union in 2011, the street protests during Euro 2012, and the pro-choice protests of 2016. If the viewer is not paying attention to the title cards sign-posting when and where they are, then this will lead to confusion, and ultimately disengagement from an incredibly important documentary.
It does not help with the other issue which plagues the film, which is its slightly flabby 53 minute running time. Malinowska could have been a good deal stricter in terms of what was left in here. While I can’t entirely fault her for that – cutting footage from a documentary is extremely difficult, because on some level, everything you capture on camera that is unique is of value, especially if you are looking to document daily life – this lack of a ruthless edge somewhat detracts from the good work done in building an engaging narrative. When coupled with the structural issue, it allows the collective mind of the audience to start wandering – the last thing you need if your intent is to inspire action.
In the end, though, Strajk Kobiet Trwa succeeds in presenting an intersectional analysis of women’s lot in 21st century capitalism, while fostering a strong connection between the audience and the human stories behind the women’s strike. As the struggle carries on, with women across the world looking to take control of their bodies and their labour, that work is invaluable.
Women’s rights in Poland are overtly being trampled on by the nation’s government, but with old-school patriarchal conservatives once more in the corridors of power around the world, things are swiftly becoming as precarious across Europe and the Americas. As capital looks to find new and violent ways to extract profit from people by any means necessary, Malinowska’s documentary is compulsory viewing.
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