A glimpse into the lives of a diverse range of people who take care of NYC’s various facilities as after-hours custodians: a fresh take on the labor and immigration narratives from a Finnish filmmaker
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Once the working day is over, and employees leave the offices, night cleaners come to prepare the spaces for the new day. But they’re not just imaginary beings who do their magic and leave, to have people return in the morning to spotless bathrooms, shiny floors, dust-free surfaces, and empty waste bins. Night cleaners are real people with complex histories full of pain and joy, and their own stories to tell. “Night cleaners” provides a glimpse into the lives of five such cleaners working at various locations in New York City, and allows each of them to shape their narrative regarding their lives at work and outside of it.
WHO MADE IT: Hanna Nordenswan is a Finnish journalist and documentary filmmaker who is currently based in Helsinki. She attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and made “Night cleaners,” her second film, in the city. She had recently snatched the award for Best Documentary Short at Nordic Film Festival in New York. The protagonists of the film are all employed in the cleaning industry. Tony Dancy works at the cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, Meska Llonqqari at the MTA offices, and Marco Campoverde at the Thurgood Marschall courthouse. Meanwhile, Ben Caines is employed by a public school in the Bronx, and Milagros Sánchez at an on-demand cleaning service.
WHY DO WE CARE: Supamodu is all about giving working-class characters, especially in documentary films, full representation. We’re exceptionally interested in the less visible professions: not just the fiery factory workers who wage wars against a corporation for fair wages, but also the silent figures, who mop up the floors after hours in full solitude. After all, privilege is always an intersectional issue, and lack of visibility may cause stories, identities, and lives to be swept under the carpet too easily. And merely on a personal level, “Night cleaners” meant a lot, since the Supamodu office is not far from some of the buildings portrayed in the film, and St. John the Divine with the peacocks and the Keith Haring altar, is our team’s favorite church. To be able to see those spaces through the eyes of their night custodians, who maintain hygiene in the yellowish artificial light, is to discover yet another facet of entities already familiar. Hanna Nordenswan performs the sorcery that is the exact opposite of the Wizard of Oz reveal: she shows a small person first, and then lets in all the multitudes that constitute them from the inside. An admirable mission for any contemporary filmmaker, which Nordenswann aces.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Because the way you look at the world around you will change after “Night cleaners.” It applies even if you don’t live anywhere near NYC or the buildings from the film. The understanding that behind every functioning entity, there are many unseen figures, is essential to overcoming the barriers that alienate us from each other as humans. Nordenswan made this documentary with grace, sympathy, and utmost respect for her subjects, and this makes it such a charming film, as well as a straightforward one to relate to. And because it was made by a Finnish film director during her time studying abroad, and has a rich and diverse cast of characters who have flocked to NYC from various countries and states, “Night Cleaners” is the ultimate American film. In a nation of immigrants, even a gray, lifeless bathroom stall can, at times, contain the stories of faraway lands with their traditions, culture, and, sometimes, wars. Subtle in its portrayals of the subjects and its politics, “Night cleaners” opens up many questions about the way humans exist in this world, by showing the ironies of fate. A cleaner at the courthouse learns that his daughter wants to be a lawyer. A custodian at a public school discusses the boarding school his child attends. A woman who made a journey across countries and continents fleeing the Yugoslavian war ends up taking care of the local transit authority. The way that the various identities intersect in the backdrop of the systems that make up a metropolis is the soft magic that makes up modernity, and to be able to capture it as effortlessly as Nordenswan did is a fantastic feat.
Night Cleaners, 2019
Director: Hanna Nordenswan
For more content like this sign up for our weekly newsletter