JoAnn Elam’s Everyday People

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Elam collection at Chicago Film Archives

For the past year, I have been volunteering at Chicago Film Archives, an organization that serves as a repository for films regional to the Midwest. Recently, I have been archiving the papers of Chicago feminist filmmaker JoAnn Elam. Elam is a central figure in the history of Chicago experimental film. She was part of a group of filmmakers, including her then-boyfriend Bill Brand, who helped co-found Chicago Filmmakers in 1973, and she made numerous films, some which echoed the more abstract experimental aesthetic of peers such as Saul Levine, others which directly engaged with her own feminist and political leanings, including works such as Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982), and Rape (1975)

Elam’s paper archives, however, mostly revolve around a film she spent a good part of her life trying to perfect—a documentary project called Everyday People about Chicago mail carriers. The film itself exists in 250 fragments of film, video, and audio elements, and some rough edits, that Elam was consistently working on between 1979-1990. For a chunk of the time during making this film, Elam also worked at the Chicago Post Office herself as a mail carrier. Issues of power and the cinema were central to Elam’s oeuvre. Lie Back and Enjoy It, for example, is a clever dissection of the male-dominated culture of avant-garde cinema that surrounded Elam while she created her own work. Everyday People reflects similar tensions and in her notes, she asks rhetorically whether it is “possible to make an avant-garde film with a working class (proletarian) instead of petit bourgeois ideology?” In other words, Elam wondered what it meant to represent “everyday people”—who were these representations for and how could they avoid the kind of fetishistic representations of working life that are par for the course in avant-garde explorations of labor.

Elam’s hesitations brought to mind another film I saw recently—Elizabeth Subrin’s Shulie (1997), which re-stages shot-for-shot with actors and actresses an earlier verité film made about feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone while she was a student at the School of the Art Institute in the late 1960s. At the time, like Elam, Firestone worked at the Chicago Post Office while studying for her BFA. As Subrin’s remake illuminates, Firestone also wanted to make a film about her co-workers at the Post Office but her attitude towards them is indicative of the kind of power relations that Elam’s project was concerned to avoid. At one point in the film, Shulie says:

The percentage of Negros there is very high, which would automatically make you wonder about the kind of job it is…uh, well, first of all, Negros can’t get anything except for a federal job; that would account for the high rate of Negroes. If you meet a Negro and you want a subject of conversations, the first thing you ask them is: how long have you worked at the post office? and then you have something to talk about!

As Subrin herself points out, this part of the film marks a turning point in Shulie, where Firestone becomes both a more interesting and more problematic documentary subject. Though she works in the same environment, she can’t relate to her black co-workers. Yet Firestone not only expresses a desire to make art out of their experiences, but would also later theorize that racism was an extension of sexism in her book The Dialectic of Sex, a contention that was heavily critiqued by black feminist and womanist writers who argued that Firestone played down the specificity of racism as a lived experience. Subrin’s Shulie cleverly explores how much had changed in the 30-year period between the two films, and how much had not when it came to gender and racial equality and white privilege.

Elam’s approach was progressive for her time and often out of step with other self-proclaimed white feminists. She was well-aware of the ways in which oppression worked both for and against her, and Everyday People is a film that attempts to explore the internal power dynamics within working class groups. It reveals that though Elam often focused on sexism and gender representation in her work, she also understood the limitations of her own subjectivity (as a filmmaker, a white woman, and a feminist) when representing the lives of others whose daily experiences were different to hers, even within the same working environment. Elam writes in her notes, “The narrators of the film are black, Puerto Rican, and/or women. These groups are under-represented within organized carriers, which are dominated by Irish, Italian and German men. Because of the choice of narrators, issues of racism and sexism are often brought out.” In one transcript from the film, Elam’s feminist leanings are as explicit as they are in Rape and Lie Back and Enjoy It; however, these excerpts also represent the  intersectionality of oppressions that are inhered in race, class, and gender dynamics:

Most of the women think it’s real nice to see a woman delivering the mail, doing a job that pays decent, that is normally restricted to men. In fact, one woman once told me that I’d taken a man’s job, and was really angry with me. (…) Being a woman carrier presents certain problems. Men feel like they have a little bit more freedom to make a little cute remark, or you’re the cutest mail carrier I’ve ever seen, I wish you were our mail carrier all the time, you know with a certain tone in their voice. That type of thing happens quite a bit. (…) And they like me because I’m white and it’s a very white part of Chicago. In fact black people have, you know, at times had fairly unpleasant encounters in this area.

Chuck Kleinhans, a longtime friend of Elam’s and founder/editor of Jump Cut journal, suggested that the film initially started out experimental and became more conventional as time went on. He tells me in an email,

(…) She was getting feedback from union activists in particular who wanted/expected something closer to other “political” or “labor” films they had seen. My own experience has been that ordinary people have no problem with a radical form if the subject matter is something they find relevant, intriguing, attractive, etc.  And in fact that was my impression of the early screenings she did in Chicago with lots of post office people attending.

However, perhaps a more radical space for Elam’s perceptions of mail carriers is found in the archive itself, as a site for exploration and reflection. The archive, in this instance, does for Elam what film as a medium never could. Housed in folders of work grievances, pay slips, news clippings about mail carrier strikes, and diary entries about fraught work relationships, is Elam herself—as a mail carrier, as a filmmaker, as a feminist and a woman. These documents allow for the kind of complexity that Elam struggled to condense into film. They reveal a blurring of the roles of art in her life and life in her art. Perhaps that’s why she could never finish it.


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