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On the Soap Opera as a formal device and Cyclical Time - Extracts from

Mindless Culture, Unskilled Labour, Laura Guy and Rehana Zaman, 2015
Full version
https://www.academia.edu/27981694/Mindless_Culture_Unskilled_Labour_Rehana_
Zaman_in_conversation_with_Laura_Guy
Rehana Zamans Some Women, Other Women and all the Bittermen (2014) was
commissioned by The Tetley, a contemporary art space housed in the former
headquarters of Tetleys Brewery in Leeds, England. Zamans moving image work
references an earlier moment in the history of the brewery and interweaves the
accounts of two groupsthe former workers of Tetley and the recently-formed Leeds
wing of Justice for Domestic Workers (JD4W)who are at a temporal, political, and
cultural remove from one another. The stories of these two groups are framed by a
common concern relating to the labour movement and its response to working
conditions in one former British industrial centre. Yet the video also utilises two
distinct visual strategies to foreground differences between past and present struggles.
Bittermen, a six-part soap opera, tells the story of workers at Tetleys Brewery in
Leeds at a time when, in the early 1990s, the company underwent a process of major
restructuring. This dramatisation of an episode in Tetleys worker relations is paired
with footage documenting a series of meetings that occurred in 2014, when a group of
Leeds-based migrant domestic workers began to organise around the issue of formal
recognition for domestic workers within UK immigration laws.

LG: I was thinking how when I first saw Some Women, at a conference organised
around the idea of duration in art and curatorial practices influenced by feminism,
you mentioned in the following Q&A with the curator Louise Shelley that you were
inspired by the work of Charlotte Brunsdon.1 Brunsdon is a feminist academic who, in
1981, produced a groundbreaking study of the discontinued British soap opera
Crossroads.2 In it, she argued that far from representing a kind of mindless culture
the form of the soap opera offered a possible way for the academy to account for the
agency of female audiences. Brunsdon wrote this article whilst she was a student
within the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, where an
imperative for forms of popular culture to be addressed within the academy coalesced
with interconnecting concerns relating to race, gender and class. I was thinking about
how a parallel can be drawn between this project and your own work, in which the
vernacular often becomes the site upon which subjects begin to stake their claim as
political actors. To what extent were you interested in taking up the tradition of the
1 Feminist Duration in Art and Curating was organised by Helena Reckitt and Andrea Phillips at
Goldsmiths College, University of London, 16 - 17 March 2015
2 Charlotte Brunsdon, Crossroads: Notes on Soap Opera, in Screen, Vol 4, Issue 22 (1981). pp. 3237

soap opera in order to bring dominant cultural representations of working class


identity into critique?3
RZ: In Some Women... the soap opera form became a useful way to draw attention to
how popular culture perpetuates a notion of working class identity as a fantasy.
Working in collaboration with screenwriter Joe Hepworth, I developed characters and
storylines within Bittermen that would be recognisable: for example the shop
steward, the ambitious sassy secretary and the slippery middle manager. The
characters were given enough depth that we could play with audience expectation
through the device of the cliffhanger, but not so much that they trigger a significant
empathetic response; they function as entertaining, but largely hollow, tropes.
Stylistically Bittermen quoted classic British continuing dramas, which were at
their zenith in the early 1990s at the time of the takeover. Much like soap operas of
the period, the world of Bittermen is a narrow oneits entirely white and
predominantly male. This is consistent with information that emerged during research
interviews I conducted about the brewery and struck me as pertinent given the
diversity of Leeds and the surrounding area. The interweaving of the two strands in
Some Women acts to question what (or who) is excluded from dominant cultural
narratives and how this fantasy performs within our social environments.
Although generally the soap is an access point to the work, establishing an
atmosphere of warmth and readability, its humour occasionally takes on a malevolent
tone that registers a menace beneath the jocular dialogue of the characters. From
Morriss quips to the casual misogyny directed towards Sue by her male colleagues,
the power play and insidious prejudice of interpersonal relationships is articulated.
Furthermore, the regional emphasis in the dialogue asserts a particular community,
which contrasts to that of the domestic workers for whom English is a second
language. Early on in the video the distinction between the two communities is
marked but as the work progresses this separation is undone through the interweaving
of the two narratives. If Some Women... poses the question who are the working
class? I suppose it also attempts to answer this through both an abstraction of how
the two groups are portrayed and how they are formed in relation to one another.
Reading Brunsdons text, I was interested in how the soap opera facilitates a
discussion about domestic labour and the subjects who perform that labour under
globalised capital. Her analysis of women depicted within soap operas and then
watched by women at home (the housewives) who are then studied by feminist
intellectuals, was largely described as a class relation. With the increased numbers of
women entering the labour market outside the home in the UK, certainly since the
time of Brunsdons writing, the potential viewership of soaps shift so that the
3 Lucy Parker recently addressed this point in relation to Zamans work in Increasing Audiences:
Intervening in Popular Forms. Radical Film Network Conference, Birmingham City University, 7 - 8
February 2015.

domestic worker might supplant the housewife. I thought about the soap in relation to
womens work and the Wages for Housework movement but I also wanted to use it
to speak of the racialization of domestic labour that has in many ways resulted from
shifting demographics of female workers.
LG: What you describe here resonates with the way that you reference a historic event
in order to illuminate the present struggle of J4DW. Bittermen chronicles a moment
in British industry that was already, by the 1990s, somehow consigned to the past.
The sell off and resultant restructuring of Tetley came after most UK industrial
centres had been decimated by the Conservative government that Margaret Thatcher
led during the 1980s, which also facilitated the breaking of the British union
movement. The story of J4DW Leeds, told through documentary footage that is
intimate in affect, deals not with a history seemingly belonging to the recent past, but
with a process of unionising that is an ongoing and urgent concern. The kind of work
that the women in this group do is characterised by the very specific and repetitive
temporalities of domestic labour and in practical terms this means that they have very
little leisure time. These complex temporalities permeate your video and are
implicated in the material conditions that give rise to the two different kinds of
images.
RZ: The project emerged alongside lots of heritage work that is currently ongoing at
The Tetley and I was conscious that Some Women... could easily be framed by this
process that represents a sentimentalisation of the past. As the actors were all local to
the region, their familiarity with the history of the area enriched the production
process, to some extent history repeating itself as farce. Tim Rutherford who plays
Morris had worked in Sheffields steel industry, Paul Stonehouse who plays Colin had
worked within middle management for Burton clothing manufacturers in Bradford
shortly before the company restructured and David Peel who plays Alan joined the
project from the theatre production Orgreave: An English Civil War (2014) by Javaad
Alipoor. This recognition (and to some extent identification) with recent histories of
British industry enabled us to achieve quite a lot within a very short timeframe and on
a restricted budget.
On the other hand there didnt seem to be enough time with the domestic workers and
I was conscious that, given the tedium of their working week, the few hours we did
share on their only day off should be engaging and relevant. Depending on the
demands of their employers, members of the group would often arrive late to the
meetings, leave early or else not turn up at all. This made it difficult to plan ahead for
the sessions and necessitated a more responsive approach in order to explore how a
film might begin to address their experience. The nature of the J4DW (Leeds)
meetings, which were often erratic and limited by pressures of time, influenced the
way footage was captured. This, in turn, impacted upon the edit. The lack of a script
and storyboard demanded a more rhythmic approach to editing that foregrounded

discontinuous shots, disjunctures between sound and image, and employed a drifting
focus. The temporal disruptions that characterise the interaction between the soap and
documentary footage felt essential in order that the video might open up associations
around labour as a site of power and fantasy.
A friend observed that, whilst in Bittermen the characters are anticipating the
changes of the takeover that are yet to come into effect, the domestic workers are
dealing with the consequences of the visa changes that took effect in 2012, in which
key clauses were rescinded such as the right to change employer. These sections were
originally part of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa of 1998 and were initiated after
a lengthy political campaign. The cyclical nature of this political struggle reiterates
the repetitive nature of domestic work within the home that is described explicitly by
Marissa in episode four of the film. This circularity was asserted in the edit through
the treatment of the primary narrative, where Marissa and Georgina reflect on the
political and personal struggles of the domestic workers, which bookends the piece.
The narrative is returned to at various points throughout the episodes so that there is a
sense of going back and forth, of a temporal disruption and return. I think Brunsdon
cites Julia Kristevas notion of Womens Time in relation to the open-ended nature of
soap operas. Kristevas essay has stayed with me particularly when thinking about
how the experiences of the domestic workers (suggestive of maternal cyclical time)
might be reconciled with the experiences of the Tetley workers (emblematic of linear,
historical time).4

4 Julia Kristeva Womens Time, Signs, Vol 7, No.1. (Autumn 1981), pp. 13-35