With nonfiction films that deal with a political subject, form can often be a secondary concern. This is particularly true of films about activist movements, wherein the individual depicting the organization can become so embroiled in its particularities that the resulting film ends up a mere record, or worse, a recounting, a mass of information and little else. British artist Lucy Parker’s long in-the-making feature film about blacklisted construction workers in Britain, Solidarity—screening at London’s Open City Documentary Festival in September—is a welcome exception. Based upon fastidious research, it sees the artist deeply embedded within the movements she is engaging with, yet able to distance herself from them enough to see how they might best be rendered as cinema.
Part of this distance is organic: while the protest depicted in the film remains ongoing, the incident that it stems from—the blacklisting of workers in the UK's construction industry between 1992 and 2009—issues from the past. This secretive and illegal blacklisting, which deprived thousands of workers of fair employment, was confirmed after documents proving its widespread occurrence were seized by the Information Commissioner’s Office (the UK’s independent data protection agency) a decade ago. After an investigation, eight construction firms issued a joint statement admitting and apologizing for their actions, yet no one involved has faced prosecution. As such, Parker has some historical distance from the incident, as do her subjects, the Blacklist Support Group. Yet her distance is also somewhat fabricated, the result of serious efforts to find a form that does service to both the blacklisted workers without whom the film would not exist—a group still grievously affected, both financially and psychologically, by the crimes committed against them, and still actively campaigning for justice—and to an audience learning about them for the first time.
Featuring a mix of conversations with workers, archival footage from the original parliamentary inquest, and a law school’s contemporary investigations into the case, the film looks into what it means for a “troublemaker” to find themselves blacklisted, often for even the most tenuous involvement in trade union activism, employment disputes, or less. But it also meditates on how this injustice feeds into a growing, multifaceted system in the UK facilitating the denigration of worker’s rights, one that encompasses generalized anti-union activities, the suppression of individual activists, and the embedding of undercover police within protest movements and unions. Initially entitled Blacklist, Solidarity uses the blacklist as a proxy for examining the wider erosion of worker’s rights, looking at how cultures of fear and paranoia are instilled within workplaces, ensuring a gradual, total suppression of anything resembling dissatisfaction, let alone dissent.
The film fulfills its responsibility to its cause, proving dense, informative, and revealing; but as a standalone art object it is equally successful, mixing documentary modes to interrogate its central subject from multiple angles. This variation of approach is seen in several short films Parker made that preceded, and feed into, Solidarity. Working on an intellectual level and presented accordingly, with wide shots that position its conversing parties as opposites involved in direct debate, Apologies (2016) questions what an apology might mean, especially when it arrives from a collective or impersonal voice. Hearing from affected workers—seen in dialogue with legal students in a staged session led by political theorist Dr. Mihaela Mihai, cut
—for concision and clarity—to whom the insincere apology means little, it examines how an apology can provide closure for the aggrieved, but can also reopen and rub salt into a wound. It asks what words might mean in lieu of concrete action.
Made concurrently, Conversations Between Blacklisted Workers (2015) features members of the Blacklist Support Group talking through their experience. If Apologies unveils the theoretical throughline that runs on to Solidarity, this film is more concerned with the psychological effects of the workers’ struggle, featuring heartfelt testimony that taps directly into the turmoil experienced by workers who were aware of their victimization yet held no proof of it, and their eventual catharsis when it is brought to light. Filming a gathering of the aggrieved in intense closeups, and leaving more room for pause and reflection on the part of the speakers, Parker illustrates a new form of collectivity in the aftermath of their experience. Having previously been punished for their organizing, the workers are now able to gather to seek justice together, but also just to talk things through.
Produced as part of the research process for the feature film and wider project, it is notable that both of these differently styled short films are structured around dialogues in which great attention is given to what is being said, and towards actively listening to it. As one of the workers says in the former film, “if you look at the words, words matter.” Solidarity—a composite film made from these short films and other research sources, structured almost entirely around conversations—manages a difficult triple act. It clearly and concisely establishes the narrative behind its central incident, contextualizing the situation it depicts (the blacklisting of British construction workers), while also placing it in wider, often interlinked contexts (worker rights, activism and the law), all the while foregrounding the voices of the affected without sacrificing a subtle, authorial presence on the part of the filmmaker.
Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group—tellingly included on Solidarity’s website ahead of any other publicity pull quotes or press mentions—is quoted as saying that “it takes an artist to convey the emotional as well as the factual side of the story.” This may seem like a simple enough notion, but, for a film that appears straightforward but is actually exceptionally layered, it is quite apt. Intimate and attentive, Solidarity is not just a film about an incident, but about that incident’s interconnected, intersectional ramifications. It is a dissection of how one particularly egregious, long unacknowledged removal of worker’s rights operated, but also what is exposed, more widely, through the pursuit of justice on the part of those affected. A film based on listening to a group of people who’ve been otherwise largely marginalized, it shows how, as Parker puts it in her director’s statement, “the concerns of one group become the concerns of another.”