What does it mean, NOT to have any work in an achievement-oriented society? This film follows five main protagonists, all of whom are participating in a training course entitled ‘Success on the Job Market’.
- Austria 2009, 80 min., HDCam, DCP
- Book and direction:
- Production assistant:
- Dramaturgical consultant:
- Award for documentary movies, best Editing Diagonale 2010
“What does it actually mean, not to have a job?” asks the production note for Angela Summereder’s new film Job Centre. The film’s pre-credit sequence shows us a series of loosely mounted portraits of people to whom something is being done. They are sitting in a studio and preparing themselves to be photographed: from off, the lighting is being adjusted, film clapboards are pushed in front of their faces, hands reach into the picture in order to rearrange their hair. While the film team is emphatically present, discussing various matters, giving instructions, bustling about (in short: working), those whose portrait is being taken find themselves in a state of enforced passivity. Their role is not to work. They are waiting, looking around, being silent, breathing in or breathing out, hesitating – but finally begin to speak. They talk about emptiness and boredom, about social isolation, about the necessity to be restrained. In a few simple statements, those affected describe the most important consequences of unemployment and long-term unemployment, as it has been recognised and documented ever since the 1930s at the latest.
Summereder’s most recent film, Job Centre, was produced in 2009, eighteen years after her first film, Zechmeister, which in 1981 made Austrian film history, more or less out of nowhere, as a kind of semi-documentary feature film or semi-acted documentary film. Although, thematically, the new movie might appear to be a highly topical report on the worldwide credit and economic crisis, its conception distinctly precedes this crisis. Consequently, the film is quite evidently not interested in the present immediate consequences of the crisis, but rather in a fundamental localisation of the question already quoted above, namely: ‘What does unemployment in Austria (in the western world) mean today and how does society deal with it?’ Summereder opens up the discussion at the beginning of Job Centre by fading in a quotation from the American sociologist and critic of capitalism, Richard Sennett. The quotation itself – “Time is the only resource which human beings on the lower edges of society have at their disposal.” – lays a twisted trail: the principal actors in Summereder’s film can by no means be categorised without further ado as people on the lower edges of society, unless their current status as unemployed people already justifies such an assessment. The quotation, together with Sennett’s name, here serves as an externally introduced counterpoint to the name of another academic, who implicitly accompanies us throughout the film: namely, Abraham Maslow. The latter’s elaboration of the hierarchy of needs, which was published as early as the 1940s, is not only regarded as one of the key works of humanistic psychology, but has also had a lasting effect on sales psychology, as well as on a whole range of highly influential management methods.
What kind of a place is a job centre? We get our first glimpse of it through the window panes, which only allow a partial view inside, and otherwise reflect the outside world – and this is how Summereder establishes the job centre as an ambivalent place. The trainers are kind, naturally wanting to help people climb the mountain. They don’t exert any pressure, but let everyone work individually, unless they are “wide boys” and only want to “consume”. First of all, they have to deal with the formalities, so that the participants’ benefits continue. They ask difficult questions in a rather peculiar language, for instance: ‘What kind of example did your parents set you in their lives?’ Or: ‘If you had the money, what kind of company would you found?’ While asking such questions, their faces look very tense. They repeatedly invite the participants to ask questions of their own, and repeatedly emphasise the fact that participation is voluntary. They say: ‘You yourself decide what is perfect for you!’ – while the camera shows us a chorus line of screens, on which the curriculi vitae resemble one another the way one egg resembles the next. The motivation trainer at the job centre in Ried explains Maslow’s pyramid of needs – a scene, which Summereder divides up into four segments and uses to connect the individual chapters, structuring the film in accordance with a pattern of progression. The trainer says that losing a job might represent a unique chance to rearrange one’s life in a new way, in line with one’s own talents – and this leads us straight into the field of tension which is to a certain extent marked out by the antipodes of Maslow and Sennett: Maslow’s idea – perhaps somewhat too idealistic, perhaps much too middle-class – that the human being strives for recognition and eventually self-actualisation – has taken on a life of its own in modern capitalism. According to Sennett, hard work or mastery of a craft have faded into the background. Modern capitalism promotes individuals with talent, who perform well and at the same are able to adapt to surrounding conditions that are constantly changing. The need for recognition and self-actualisation has therefore become a precept and personal happiness can only be achieved in modern capitalism by those who satisfy the demands of the market.
Whereas, in actual fact, the needs of Summereder’s protagonists are extremely varied. Sieglinde and Helmut, for instance, both of whom are over 50 and are therefore per se outsiders on the job market, come from another generation, when work was for most people nothing other than a simple factor of production. Whereas Sieglinde ended up, by chance, with another profession and responsibility, which did indeed bring her not only hard work but also recognition, Helmut already experienced the last few years of his active working life as frustrating. In the end, both of them are failures, according to the rules of modern capitalism. Mathias, Martin and Atafa are at the start of their professional careers and find themselves already being forced to retrain or to enter further training schemes. Mathias, who trained as a baker, is becoming a masseur; Martin, the son of a farmer, whose grandmother and father are often telling him what to do, just wants to have fun in life more than anything else; while Atafa is supplementing her school-leaving certificate by going to business college. They are searching for those specific talents and specific aims which should enable them to integrate into the job market and become successful there.
Time, that sole free resource of all the unemployed, is no longer free in Job Centre, but rather is filled, to a certain extent at the behest of society, and under the strict supervision of the Austrian Public Employment Service (AMS). Time is usually spent in waiting and emptiness: the trainers wait for all the participants to have filled out their forms, the camera waits in empty corridors. The unemployed are taking a break from being on the move: Helmut runs through the brambles, Atafa runs through long corridors or sits in the train, travelling from one job interview to the next. Regardless of their varied backgrounds, all of Summereder’s main characters are whisked through the same revolving doors into the job centre, and once inside they have to be passive and allow something to be done unto them. They get in line, in order to prepare themselves for the market – although, as it transpires at the end of the film, with varying degrees of success. Everything is made to fit into a pattern, just as sound overlays images: all the stories are reduced to a common denominator. In the process, it becomes clear that following the ordained path towards recognition and self-actualisation involves suppressing one’s own personality: for example, when Atafa is asked by her future employer what brought her from Afghanistan to Austria; or when Helmut, whose mother is suffering from dementia, hears from his adviser at the AMS that he has to be made fit for job interviews and able to argue every gap in his curriculum vitae.
However, authentic spaces open up every time that Summereder follows her protagonists into their own worlds: when we experience the calm of Helmut’s dilapidated house in the country, when we listen to the intensity with which Sieglinde speaks about her angel cards, when Atafa explains her prayer clock, when Martin is sitting happily on his tractor, or when Mathias smiles shyly as he plays one of his compositions on the computer. In these moments, Job Centre succeeds in sorting out its protagonists’ stories again and giving them back their language and individuality.
In: Kolik 13, Vienna 2010