Our Specially Curated Season for Art of The Underground’s Canary Wharf Screen is now in Phase III: Future. Each week, we interview one of our filmmakers about their film and their involvement in the programme.
This week is our last in the interview series, and we speak to Katharina Gruzei, director of workers leaving the factory (again) (2012). Gruzei is an Austrian born filmmaker who uses visual strategies to decode the construction and ideology of found imagery. This research starts from a single image and often ends up in archives. By using found footage she unfolds cultural history as a field of artistic research into which she introduces her own thoughts and statements.
Buzzing neon tubes light up the pitch-black corridor of an abandoned tobacco factory. As the camera moves through this endless, uncanny corridor, workers appear and seem to multiply. This reinterpretation of an early film by the Lumiere Brothers evokes questions about the working-class today, and the representation of female workers.
Our programme manager Elhum Shakerifar spoke to Katharina about her work and workers leaving the factory (again), which you can catch at the Art on the Underground Canary Wharf screen, as part of the Birds Eye View Future season, until 17 August.
> There are so many layers to this film – from references to the beginnings of film to the representation of men and women in screen – where did the film begin to take shape for you, and can you describe the journey from idea to script?
My own viewer experience with Avantgarde Cinema has led me to do this film. I saw some of the Avantgarde adaptations of the Lumières film before I saw the original film. When I saw the original I was quite astonished because there are so many women to be seen in the first movie shot. Of course the Avantgarde adaptations had their own legitimate focus on the original, but what opened up to me was the fact that all these women workers are skipped in these new versions.
I felt the urge to do this film and bring the female workers back in the frame. Back into visibility and back into the history of labour where women were always under-represented or their contribution was forgotten. In the German title I refer to this act by taking the current “gender language discourse“ into account. The very personal fact that I was astonished about so many women workers leaving the factory told me a lot of how I perceive history or how history was taught to me. This experience made me see a gap in history that is immensely important to be seen again. It made me do my own adaptation that hints to the fact that most of the workers leaving the factory were women.
Furthermore the location where I shot the film was the Austrian Tobacco Factory in Linz that closed down in 2009. This was quite a big issue in the city as lots of people lost their job. Leaving the factory today can mean something very different than to knock off in the flourishing industrial times of 1895. The factory in my film was known for their high rate of female employees. So this seemed to be the perfect place to realize the film with an analogy in regard to female representation in labour.
> Could you tell us a little about the process of your work?
I have to say that I usually like to work on my own or with the smallest crew I can have. There is of course a financial reason for that but also my artworks need a certain intimacy. A lot of people on the set change the mood and as I usually work with non-actors this can make a big difference. Additionally I like to do things by myself. My artworks often result from an experiment in a small setting.
For “Die ArbeiterInnen verlassen die Fabrik / workers leaving the factory (again)” though, I worked with a lot of people. I shot the film twice as I realised in the first shoot that I cannot operate the camera, do the directing and coordinate 70 people at the same time. I understood that I need to only do the directing and focus on the picture. That’s why I shot the film twice. The interesting thing of having made the film mostly on my own is learning that working with a big crew accelerates the production immensely. Actually I am looking forward to big budgets and the possibility to hand over some work to others!
The building where the movie was made is about 200m long and has a slight curve. You might not pick up on it very much from the outside but if you walk down the corridor inside it feels like a never ending tunnel. It’s like walking in a wheel and almost never getting to the end. The ceiling is very low and the room becomes quite claustrophobic with its ever repeating architecture and the endlessness. The repetitive elements of the architecture almost echo the movements of workers in an assembly line. Walking this space is meditating and uncanny at the same time. It reminded me a lot to corridor scenes in horror and zombie movies that provide no escape.
So I decided to use this fact and work with the space and architecture itself. I made a light installation by using the present lighting system of the corridor. I placed a programmed digital board into the power plant of the building. This board would switch the neon tubes on and off in a certain rhythm. This light installation basically folded and unfolded the factory space. It made the architecture seem like a wall in front of you or enlighten the endless corridor. From the outside it looked like the factory becomes alive again. The size of the space would act like a natural amplifier to the sound of the buzzing light tubes. It resulted in a so to call Sound-Light-Installation, and a movie quote came into existence that one could “walk off”.
The post production took a very long time as I did everything myself. I worked on the sound for almost 400 hours. The whole film from the concept to the screening took me 2 years to make. I wanted to stay open in the editing and post production and see which experiments are possible and what I can do with the material.
In the montage I very soon decided to prolong the corridor by editing different shots into one another. The short black phase between the switching of the neon tubes gave me the option to cut and combine different takes. By this I enforced the feeling of the never ending tunnel. The viewer’s eye glides off the black phases so to speak. The orientation is gone for a moment and back in another. It is like the blink of the eye, which always puts additional cuts into what we see: a brief cut into black.
The film was actually shot digitally and then transferred onto 35mm Film. It is a conceptual decision to bring it back on film material, but also because digital projectors beam the black parts of a frame. There is always light projected – even when the shot is entirely black. Film material covers the light completely in the black parts. As my film is quite dark it made a big difference between the 35mm film and the digital projection. These aesthetic facts forced the production onto 35mm, which I think is beautiful.
> The film is carried by a fantastic, evocative soundscape – can you tell us a little bit about the choices around sound?
For the movie I would record the empty fabric space, which still made lots of noise and the sounds of the light installation with different microphones. Then I would do a composition of sounds and place every sound, the clicks and the buzz, on the specific light appearance. It was quite a lot of work to bring back this special space experience to the movie. With panning and the characteristics of the reverberant space it was possible to “rebuild” the space digitally. Although there is no sound of the workers movement, viewers have told me that they heard their steps. Isn’t it magic how experimental film and the “montage” of our brain assemble new realities?
> Birds Eye View is a platform that spotlights women directors – what advice would you give to women starting out in film?
Although this is a tough process I would suggest women to develop a well balanced proportion of seriously taking critique on their work and not caring too much about what others think. To pioneer often means to take other paths, to leave common perceptions behind to be stubborn and protective to an idea. For that, one is often confronted with strong reactions as it is culturally perceived as “wrong”.
This might be a result of leaving traditional paths behind and questioning the seemingly “natural” imagery. It should not be taken personal and it must not stop an idea to be realized. I love experimental film also for its various and wonderful methods of unfolding and demonstrating “the making” of film. It gives you an example that things only seem to be “naturally” one way but there are so many paths, possibilities, aesthetics, stories and realities.