Sisters! opens in a way that many films end. On a visitor sign-in sheet a group of individuals write their name, time of arrival, expected departure, and job title. The list reads: ‘photographer’, ‘artist’, ‘assistant’, and ‘sound’, evidently Petra Bauer and her film crew who have staged their arrival at Southall Black Sisters’ offices in Brixton. This opening shot not only establishes the temporal parameters of the film, indicating that the unfolding scenes have been shot on location over a seven day period, but acknowledges the technical contributors to the work’s production. By opening the film in this way and immediately recognising the different forms of labour that have made the film possible, Bauer makes a small but significant gesture that introduces her collaborative and democratic approach to filmmaking.
Southall Black Sisters are a radical, non-for-profit advocacy group who support Black (Asian and African-Caribbean) women who have experienced domestic or gender-related violence. For some women their migrant status is dependent upon their marital status meaning that leaving an abusive partner can result in deportation. For others, sourcing and securing alternative accommodation to leave can be difficult when that person is financially dependent on their partner, a scenario further complicated when the couple have children. Southall Black Sisters work with women who find themselves in such legal and financial entrapment; as Sisters Uncut, a UK-wide feminist activist group committed to campaigning for domestic abusive social services, demand, 'how can she leave if she has nowhere else to go?'
In the film we witness phone operators speaking to and logging the data of callers to their helpline, team meetings and desk-based administrative work, a snapshot of the typical work undertaken by Southall Black Sisters’ staff members. The film is more than a simple record of the organisation’s political work and objectives; what we see on screen has undergone a careful process of collaborative consideration and selection between Bauer and Southall Black Sisters, preceded by weeks of listening, learning and research. As the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard observes ‘there is a difference between making films about politics and making film politically’. In a nod to the oppositional ethos of 1970s independent feminist collectives who, as well as making films about feminist issues sidelined by mainstream media, challenged standardised production and distribution models through, as one example, collective film-making, Bauer asserts her politics by exploring the conditions and processes of her films’ making, primarily through non-hierarchical authorship. Throughout the process she looks to demarcate a space in which the participants that she is working with are able to speak and act within parameters that in parallel allow them to be heard. In Sisters! the voices of Southall Black Sisters are central.
Bauer has acknowledged herself the difficulty, or even the impossibility, of making a film in which everyone’s contribution is of equal importance. Each member brings to the project different skillsets and specialisms, experiences and points of view. John Douglas Millar, in his review of the film when it opened at The Showroom in 2011, highlighted his difficulty in pinpointing how the work is collaborative. Without insight into the research phrase or discussions between Bauer and Southall Black Sisters this is not overtly pronounced. To see where Bauer’s background as an artist filmmaker and Southall Black Sisters’ activism coalesce, it is necessary to identity moments of equilibrium between her conceptual decision-making in film which is grounded in a historical context and the organisation’s desire to truthfully and clearly represent Southall Black Sisters to an audience who might otherwise be unaware of their work.
Throughout Sisters! there is a strong emphasis on the administrative aspect of the staff members’ activist work, which is inter-cut with photographic documentation of impassioned protest marches and an emotional rallying cry made by director, Pragna Patel, at an anniversary fundraiser. The focus on administrative labour, the form of their resistance and fight for a more equal and just world, is reminiscent of the aesthetic strategies of Berwick Film Collective in Nightcleaners, a 1975 experimental documentary by members of Berwick Street Collective about the campaign for fairer working conditions by women who cleaned office blocks at night. This work sought (like many other independent avant-garde filmmakers of the 1970s) to prompt new ways of seeing outside mainstream cinema’s dominant conventions, employing fragmented narratives, experimental techniques and black blocks of empty, black frames. Sisters! in a similar approach to Nightcleaners, frames the workers’ manual labour with close-up shots of typing, writing, and essential administrative work. These are book-ended with scenes of food preparation, eating and cleaning, a collage which looks to indicate how political work is an ongoing, daily practical activity while drawing a connection to domestic feminised labour; a reference to how social struggles are interconnected. There is a harmony between the theorised, conceptual tools used to frame and compose visuals and references while articulating the crucial work that Southall Black Sisters does in lobbying, campaigning, supporting and changing societal attitudes. Sisters! borrows historical processes and aesthetic strategies of the 1970s and explores what is possible to learn from them when they are staged in current political circumstances, film discourse, and conversations around ethics.
Sisters! was made in 2011, shortly after the financial crash in 2008 and subsequent implementation of austerity by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Southall Black Sisters’ support to women relies heavily on linking women to public services, and eight years on, Patel’s comments on the erosion of the welfare state and the danger this poses to the organisation’s existence chime heavily in the context of ongoing, severe cuts to the public sector. On their website, Sisters Uncut state that because of the substantial decrease in funding to local services, 2 out of 3 women are turned away from refuge centres when trying to escape domestic violence. On Thursday 12 December, the date of DISPATCH’s screening of Sisters!, the public will have spent the day casting their votes in a UK general election. Maybe tomorrow we will wake up to a new government and work will begin on reverting the damage that years of austerity has caused, an ideological programme which has disproportionately impacted the working class and women of colour.
Words by Lauren Houlton written for our upcoming screening of Sisters! on Thursday 12 December at Peckhamplex. Book your tickets here: https://www.peckhamplex.london/news/sisters-feminist-cinema-event