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‘Reclaiming Work’ Directors Usayd Younis & Cassie Quarless on using film to build an alternative future

Usayd Younis is a documentary director and digital journalist, while Cassie Quarless is a feature director/producer with a background in comedy and documentary shorts. The Reclaiming Work and Generation Revolution Directors spoke to Indy Film Library on using their punchy, stylistic brand of filmmaking to show audiences alternatives to the hyper-exploitation of the gig-economy.

We’ve previously reviewed films which have a progressive message, but the language they deploy and actions they promote arguably only preach to the converted, and alienate broader audiences. As the left looks to recover in 2020, how can radical filmmakers change their storytelling to reach new audiences and encourage them to join the fight back?

We’re not sure that we can necessarily provide a prescription for what other filmmakers should be doing in order to capture new audiences but for us the key is really that point: the storytelling. It’s important to find people that audiences connect with and care about, the right characters to bring us into new worlds to allow us to think about things in ways that we might not have done in the past.

One of the things that we think a lot about is the artistry of what we do. In 2020, people are accustomed to slick; well produced content on every platform, and documentaries shouldn’t be an exception. As artists it’s important that not only the content but also the form is fresh and exciting.

Reclaiming Work is the second film you have worked on together – not every pair of directors wants to ever see each other again after one production, let alone start a new one – what brought you back for more?

We feel that there is a lot of common ground in how we see the world and the role that documentary films can play in it. We see documentary as a means through which to encourage and affect change. That was one of the main things that brought us together in the first place. We felt that it was necessary to be making films that were produced to the same standard as commercial/independent documentary output but that was also focused on calling into question some of the oppressive structures that hold the world together like for example Capitalism, White Supremacy and Patriarchy.

Reclaiming Work focuses on La Pájara Ciclomensajería, a group of young people looking to change the world by launching a food delivery co-operative. Could you elaborate on the social/economic pressures their decision to launch a co-op was responding to – and how this project differs from those?

For the members of La Pajara and the couriers more generally, the thing that played a huge part for them was that they actually enjoyed certain aspects of being gig economy riders. They enjoyed riding their bikes all day; they enjoyed not necessarily having to have a boss breathing down your neck, not being in an office etc. However, there was also this massive pressure that the gig economy companies didn’t really care about them and were not really interested in compensating their labour properly. So the co-operative kind of came out of them trying to square that circle: How do we keep doing this job that we quite enjoy but also get the pay and respect that we deserve?

We can’t really speak to the pressures forcing other co-operatives to set up but from our observations there is definitely an impulse to create an infrastructure that is fairer and that allows workers to actually have more control over their destinies.

How do you hope your film might intervene with the debates surrounding the often hyper-exploitative world of the gig economy?

We were really excited by the work that both La Pajara and Coopcycle were doing. In a lot of ways we viewed them as a test case study for other people working under gig economy conditions but also in other domains. What they have been able to achieve on both the local and European scale should encourage people to think about what they can do in their own locales. It’s been really interesting reading through the YouTube comments where we’ve hosted the film (Novara Media in the UK, Mediapart in France and Means.TV in the US); people have consistently been asking about the existence of similar initiatives in their local areas or alternatively have expressed their desires to set something up if other people were keen. That is precisely the kind of intervention that we wanted.

We want people to see that there are alternatives to the hyper-exploitative workings of capitalism, not just the gig economy, and to think about how exactly they can fight back.

The film is fast-paced, up-beat and comes across as openly optimistic about the future of La Pájara Ciclomensajería. While that might serve to energise viewers, it might also be argued that it’s a little vague on the details of the work itself – especially for a documentary about an apparently world-changing idea – and there don’t seem to be many instances on screen where you push your subjects for clarification. Is there a reason as filmmakers that you felt it was more appropriate to focus on promoting the organisation than to take a more in-depth or critically supportive stance during filming?

The film seeks to present a new idea to viewers, namely that of technology-driven worker owned cooperatives as an alternative to corporate ran ‘gig’ platforms like Uber Eats and Deliveroo. Whilst there are many nuances that can be explored here, with the limitations of a 7 minute film and the desire to keep the viewers’ attention, we felt it was best to lay out the core idea and to show that those involved are doing this because they believe workers deserve better conditions than those currently on offer.

It is no secret that both CoopCycle and the cooperatives affiliated to it are in their infancy, so attempting to unpick their efforts at this stage didn’t feel like a worthwhile pursuit. It is clearly a difficult challenge and we wish them the best of success with it.

One of the questions I have about the nuts and bolts of La Pájara Ciclomensajería is where the power in the co-op lies. Each employee holds a stake in the business in terms of profits for example, but does every employee have an equal vote in company affairs?

You’ll have to put this one to the Pajara team I’m afraid! CoopCycle have a requirement that those who use their tools are worker-owned cooperatives, but we didn’t get a chance to explore the details of La Pajara’s manifesto. As it is a pretty small outfit, I’m fairly sure they do have an equal say and an even split.

I’d also like to elaborate on the idea at the heart of the film; the brand of Marxism cited as accelerationism, which claims that using the latest tools ‘created by capitalism’ on behalf of workers can supersede that economic system, and see it replaced with socialism, without the need for wider resistance. Co-operatives have existed for hundreds of years, while industrialists like Robert Owen sought to couple them with the latest in technological advancements to build a new and fairer society. As honourable as that might be, such projects seem to have failed to compete with capitalism – let alone supersede it for a number of reasons. For example, as they don’t fear redundancy, workers in co-ops might be less willing to exploit themselves to the same degree – making it harder to turn a profit on them – while the extensive collective decision-making of co-operatives is often outpaced by the ruthless single-minded leadership of a top-down business. At the same time, a lack of access to credit, and private and state violence have also often been deployed to put such movements down. Is it really enough to say that the internet and smartphones (the production and maintenance of which still both rest in the hands of capitalists) will be enough to see this succeed, this time?

I should start by saying that it’s important to distinguish the views of the characters in the film from ours as the filmmakers. Mex from CoopCycle specifically talks about accelerationism as a way of ‘using the tools’ of capitalism to implement socialism, and to us that is an interesting idea particularly in the area of work that they are in. However I don’t think he’s suggesting that this will be ‘enough’ to overthrow capitalism alone.

I think it’s important to consider the effect the micro can have on the macro, and this is a good example of utilising both age-old methods of cooperative organising combined with the modern tools developed by the likes of Uber to take a certain area of labour back into the workers control. It is quite subversive to say “we’ll take your tools minus the exploitation, thank you very much”.

As for whether it’ll succeed, I think that you can argue it already is. I don’t see it as a capitalism/socialism binary, but rather any progress towards creating a more equitable and fairer world is a step forward. It’s true that resisting the behemoth of business is no easy task, but what is inspiring about CoopCycle is the opportunity for numerous global incarnations to be born out of it, with each having its own local impact.

After seeing this on Novara Media’s YouTube account, one friend put it to me that on a basis of pure accelerationism, this model would be difficult to export to other parts of the economy. Capitalists own the factories and farms and workshops, as well as the raw materials needed to make the necessities of life, and the rest of society doesn’t. As he said, “you can’t digitise a farm,” so even if we assume the ideas do work this time for bike couriering, beyond the service industries, do you think this is a practicable idea for overhauling the current economic status-quo?

I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” alternative to current modes of working, and I don’t think the folks in the film would suggest that either. What’s important here are the underlying principles of cooperation and taking an ethical approach to labour, the environment and so on. When it comes to farming, for example, it might not require a radical overhaul but simply to return to more eco-friendly and less aggressive manners of working the earth, free from pesticides and so on. Digitisation isn’t what’s being argued for here, but for the repurposing of tools for better labour practises.

My nit-picking aside, what has the feedback been like for Reclaiming Work?

The film has been received incredibly well, with many wanting to know how they can either get involved in a local cooperative like the ones in the film, or how they can support groups that work in more ethical ways to the corporate giants. Our aim was to draw attention to the possibility of alternative modes of work and I believe we achieved that with this film.

Do you have any future projects lined up at the moment? How will they differ from your previous output?

We have been working on a feature film about the legacy of Malcolm X for a few years now. The scale of this project is much larger and more ambitious than our previous works and very much falls in line with our objectives of making film that centres critical stories of people of colour on screen. We are also developing a few other projects so watch this space! You can find out more on our website.

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