Reviews Short Documentary

Reclaiming Work (2020) – 3 stars

Directors: Usayd Younis & Cassie Quarless

Running time: 7mins

In previous reviews, Indy Film Library has extensively covered the delicate balance left-wing filmmakers have to strike to create informative yet engaging cinema. It takes more than delivering a dry lecture straight from the Party’s summer-camp to get the blood pumping in a way that viewers will adopt new ideas into their everyday lives, while simply spending a film barking hollow slogans at audiences in a bid to burn into their subconscious tends to have the same effect as an ageing paper-seller bellowing “STOP THE TORIES” at someone in the street. It’s a bit of a turnoff.

For the most part, Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless’ breathless ride through the world of Europe’s burgeoning cooperative cycle couriering scene manages to avoid falling into either trap. In fewer than eight minutes, Reclaiming Work manages to explain the concept of cooperative work, highlight the problems it seeks to address in the world of conventional business, examine ways in which technology is being used to improve the working conditions of workers otherwise exploited by traditional capitalism, and underwrite it all with personal, human stories.

While in some places, this whistle-stop tour is slightly rough and ready, and might not go into the inner mechanisms of cooperative trade, it is hard to argue with its directors, when they recently said in an interview with Indy Film Library that they believe they have achieved their primary aim for the film, which was “to draw attention to the possibility of alternative modes of work.” As a slick, stylistic and fast-paced piece of radical cinema, crammed with information and exciting new ideas, it has undoubtedly captured the imaginations of it audience.

The film follows a band of young, digitally savvy workers who, tired with the hyper-exploitive model of gig economy giants such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, decided to launch a cooperative network to give workers an equal pay, conditions and say in the running of a company. Importantly, the filmmakers quickly introduce us to a cast of subjects who help guide us through this unfamiliar world – because let’s be honest, most of us are only used to being paid less than the value of our labour, and having our opinions bulldozed by the whims of profit-hungry management.

Early on, we meet Cristina, an evidently talented and intelligent young woman from Madrid who co-founded La Pájara Ciclomensajería following a string of bizarre and unfulfilling jobs. She has a relatable backstory, and an electric personality, helping us to identify common ground in our own lives, while giving us the energy needed to move through the more theory-heavy segments of the latter film. Having established the perks of working as part of a cooperative where everyone is their own boss, to the extent we might be wishing we could join a coop in our own locale, we are then told that La Pájara Ciclomensajería is actually part of Coopcycle, is an international federation of cooperatives which anyone can found a bicycle courier cooperative to become part of and be able to use the software needed to provide a gig-economy-style courier service. If you were watching this as a downtrodden regular of Deliveroo, I can imagine that would be a very attractive prospect.

This is one of the film’s strongest facets, in fact. Every documentary must strive to get the audience to take something away from their viewing experience, beyond the end-credits, be that a new respect for a certain figure or group, or a resolve to change their behaviour in some way. Reclaiming Work is undeniably a success to that end, and its creators should be commended for it, particularly as the global left tries to develop a new cinematic language to help it engage with the public in the wake of a decade of stinging electoral defeats.

This can be seen by the fact the film was picked up after its release by online news organisation Novara Media, and has since been streamed just under 20,000 times by the group’s YouTube followers – and most seem to have been moved to action by the film. One commenter wrote, “My son works for Deliveroo in London. I’ve just sent him this video. I hope someone will start something here.” Another added, “If anyone in Manchester fancies starting this, you have your first customer here.”

While Reclaiming Work is clearly aware of what it wants, and the tools it needs to realise that, however, that does not mean that it is without any shortcomings. Indeed, its barebones approach to some rather wide-ranging topics means it does not always stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The film rather hurriedly brushes over the concept of accelerationism, for example, which it attributes to Marxism. 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, for the sake of the film’s rapid pace and tight editing, his segment ends somewhat abruptly, and as a result seems to imply capitalism can be transitioned away from, without the need for a wider societal reckoning with the industrial and legal infrastructure which has been built up to preserve it.

While this might not be what Mex is actually implying, the demands of the film’s style leave the issue more open-ended than it should be. This is something that might have lessened its impact to some extent, with a portion of its more theory-oriented audience suddenly beginning to scrutinise the theory throughout the rest of the film’s duration. This is a problem, because – on top of the fact a number of the film’s subjects seem a little carried away with the potential for overhauling an entire economic and social system with a cooperative scheme which hands them a portion of influence in the dissemination of goods, rather than the means of production – it also brings to mind awkward questions of the cooperative’s own democratic and economic infrastructure.

It could well be argued that as a documentary film – as opposed to a commercial for a recruitment drive – that Reclaiming Work is a little vague on the details of the work itself. In a documentary about an apparently world-changing idea, a large portion of viewers will also want to know the nitty-gritty of the new organisation, how it will cope with having to scale, and avoid the pitfall of simply becoming mildly more ethical, narrowly less exploitative capitalists. There are not many instances on screen where the filmmakers push their subjects for clarification in these areas, and that is probably the film’s biggest downfall.

In defence of their hands-off approach, Younis and Quarless said,

“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.”

That is fair, to some extent. As was mentioned, the key aim of the film is to draw attention to the possibility of alternative modes of work. A Paxman-style grilling would not be appropriate to that end, because it would likely kill much of the film’s momentum, and its intoxicating feel-good-vibe, not to mention putting people off engaging with what is clearly an improvement from the working relationship they have with the likes of Deliveroo, whether or not that leads to socialism. With that being said, without at least slightly pushing back for clarification, the film does feel like it has sacrificed a degree of its objectivity. In this case, it looks like more of an ad than a film, and subsequently may be found less trustworthy by some viewers than if it were to probe a little more. A longer run-time might also have allowed more room for this, while still being able to regain momentum after.

The same stylistic choices of fast-paced editing and upbeat messaging which might serve to energise a number of viewers might actually end up turning a number of others off. In spite of that, there are a great number of positives to take away from Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless’ film – not least that there are people making films about alternatives to the status-quo who understand the need to inject a little oomph into their messaging, without sinking into disingenuous sloganeering. With a little tweaking, their brand of high-octane, rebellious cinema has great potential.

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