What exactly is a documentary film anyway? Not that you can tell by what passes for documentary films most of the time nowadays, but they are supposed to be impartial, filmed records of events. The camera is supposedly a fly on the wall merely observing the action without expressing an opinion, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. These days it seems that people have started to pervert the form to suit their own purposes. Instead of merely presenting the facts, they start with a premise and then proceed to show the audience a film that will prove it.
It doesn't matter how well intentioned they are, the fact remains that films like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or any of Michael Moore's recent presentations are not documentaries. Instead they are film versions of opinion/editorial articles in a newspaper. They are no more documentary movies than any of the so-called reality television shows that saturate the air waves these days.
One only needs to see a movie like Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death, distributed on DVD by Alive Mind Media, to see the difference. Not once in the movie does the director, or anyone else for that matter, attempt to tell the audience what they should think. In fact at no point during the film are we ever directly aware of the filmmaker's presence save for the fact that somebody must be behind the camera.
While the title might imply that the film is about health and safety issues on the job, or something along similar lines, the truth is somewhat more obscure. Over the course of two hours the director and his crew take us on a trip around the world to five locations to observe men and women at work. While all the jobs and the environments are different they do share some common characteristics. Everybody involved does manual labour that has a sizeable element of risk and their jobs are not ones that we encounter everyday.
The movie opens in the coal fields of the Ukraine which in the days of the Soviet Union provided the majority of the coal for the nation. Now the mines have been closed, and the former miners laid off, as the majority of the veins are tapped out. Yet as the camera pans across the desolate slag piles and the abandoned pit heads, we see a few small figures moving around. It turns out some of those miners who were laid off are working some of the old veins illegally. The camera follows one group of five men as they worm their way on their bellies into the side of a hill where they carefully chip away at overhanging rock to bring down the coal embedded above them.
"Even a cave-in of 10 cm would be the end of us" says one of the miners, "nobody would ever find us under here." In the old days these mines would produce tons of coal, and old Soviet propaganda footage shows pictures of happy singing miners exhorting each other to exceed pit records for the month. Now the five men are happy to pull out a few sacks of coal because, as they put it, it's a matter of survival. In the old days it may have been about meeting the quota for the good of the state, now it's about putting food on the table. The men seem cheerful enough as we watch them use a hand winch to drag their bags of coal up out of the valley of the mines, but what kind of desperation would drive people to crawl inside a hill on their bellies where the slightest error in judgement would see its entire weight collapse on them?
Although the men in Indonesia who collect the sulphur from the maw of a volcano are above ground they face danger just as intense as those of their counterparts in the Ukraine. We meet them as they are preparing for the annual ritual of sacrificing a goat to prevent accidents. The workers believe that giving a goat's head to the volcano will prevent them from suffering accidents on the job. We follow them as they begin the climb up the lush mountain side covered with rain forest and watch as the green gradually gives way to rock and steam begins to billow around them.
Stuffing rags in their mouths to cut off the fumes, the men descend into the craters where pipes driven into the sides send a steady stream of boiling liquid onto the ground. Here the sulphur formations are chipped away and stashed in wicker baskets that the men will load until full before carrying them back down the mountain. With two baskets strapped to a pole slung over their shoulder, weighing between 150 and two hundred pounds, they trot down the mountains. Not only do they have to worry about slipping on the path and perhaps going over a precipice, they also have to avoid tripping over tourists who have come to see the view and take pictures of the colourful locals who gather the sulphur.
Some of the men exploit this opportunity and take chips of the sulphur and mount them on bases they make from hardening the boiling liquid spilling from the pipes to sell to the tourists. There's a wonderfully incongruous moment when the men are trotting down the mountain fully laden, and coming up the mountain are a group of school children in uniforms singing a song about climbing the mountain. The work day ends for the men with the weighing of their baskets, and the dumping of their contents into a waiting truck.
There are three more stops along the way on this journey through work sites of the world; an open air slaughterhouse in Nigeria (don't watch this if you have a weak stomach – I had to skip through it), the graveyard for ocean liners in Pakistan where workers tear apart monstrous rusted hulks with cutting torches and bare hands, and finally steelworkers in China. At each stop on the journey we witness men and women doing jobs that are almost beyond our comprehension because of the conditions they work in and the dangers they face on a daily basis.
In North America workers in manual labour have laws and unions to keep them safe, and ensure that they aren't exploited by their employers, although in recent years unions have been made the scapegoat for everything from contract killings to closing factories because of the onerous demands they place on businesses on behalf of their employees. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the same businesses that close their plants in North America and Europe relocate them to some of the countries seen in Workingman's Death. What could be closer to paradise after all for them than no environmental controls and no labour safety laws?
At the beginning of the movie a quote from William Faulkner is splashed across the screen which says something along the lines that nobody can make love, drink, or do any number of enjoyable things for eight hours a day. In fact the only thing that we can do for such an extended period is work. No wonder humans are so mean to each other and others. When you see the conditions these people are working in it's hard not to agree with that sentiment. It's impossible to watch this movie and not wonder about what it does to a person's spirit to have to work under such inhospitable conditions.
Workingman's Death has no voiceover telling us what to feel or think as the camera bears mute witness. Of course there is really no need as the images speak louder than any voice condemning what we are watching could hope to, yet unlike so many of the so-called documentaries of today which want to lead us to a predetermined conclusion, it allows us to think for ourselves. The fact that for the most part the people we see aren't complaining, that the majority of their talk is about life away from the job, or about the best way to accomplish a task, flies in the face of our wanting to be shocked and appalled by what we see.
This is a glimpse into a reality that few of us know anything about, the truly dreadful things that people are willing to accept as the cost of survival. If this movie doesn't make you wonder what kind of world would demand this sort of payment from people in return for giving them the barest essentials required for survival, I don't think anything ever will.