Sunday, September 11, 2005

Workingman's Death

Workingman's Death, by Michael Glawogger, is a documentary in the basest sense of the word, in that it simply presents five stories of workers around the world working in dangerous, back-breaking physical labour, without any narration or obvious context other than what is shown.

The film shows miners in the Ukraine working an abandoned coal mine in unbelievably claustrophobic conditions. It then moves to sulphur miners in Indonesia, collecting sulphur from active volcanic vents. Next is an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria that processes goats and cattle. Then come shipbreakers in Pakistan who cut apart old ships for scrap. And finally steel workers in China are shown before the film ends in a former foundry, now park, in Germany.

The film is adept at showing the extremely difficult and threatening conditions people have to work in, usually for little money or simply to survive. The scenes in Nigeria were especially interesting to watch, showing the interplay between all the people in the market, each with their own specific job; the images are also quite graphic.

However, the Nigerian segment does seem out of step with the rest of the movie in that it didn't seem to be especially dangerous (as per the title of the film), but rather just physically demanding. Part of the reason for this is described in the Q&A below.

Glawogger wanted to close the film at the abandoned foundry in Germany to show the future and where things were going, but I didn't necessarily feel the film lead to that. If anything, what I got was that even in the 21st century, with all the technology and progress that has been made, physical labour and heavy industry is still a big part of work around the world and that is not going to go away anytime soon, especially with the way the world economy works today.

Still, the images he shows on screen are pretty powerful and do communicate a real sense of the work, people, environment, and the sheer effort in each locale.

Michael Glawogger attended the screening and was present for a Q&A after the film:

  • When asked while the segment in China was so short compared to the other segments in the film, Glawogger replied that it was the last segment shot, and he decided to make it short to transition to the epilogue in Germany. He felt he had shown enough of the sensual part of work in the other parts. In China he found a strong belief that the future is bright, akin to Europe after World War II, and that led into the German segment which shows where the future is ending.
  • Someone asked how Glawogger managed to get John Zorn to score the film; Glawogger replied that he simply asked.
  • Glawogger was asked how he managed to gain access to his subjects; he said it was patience, i.e. the normal documentary process, where you spend time with people, make friends, and they soon open up. He spent time every day with his subjects, which showed them he was serious about his work, which caused them to take him seriously. He spent about three weeks to a month in each location, with the exception of China, where the government takes a dim view of foreigners spending that much time in their foundries talking to their workers (which I guess may also account for the shorter length of that segment of the film).
  • When asked what he learned, Glawogger said he was surprised by the diversity of the situations. For example, at first glance, the Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse looks horrible, like an inferno, but it's not really like that, and in fact the people there are the happiest of anyone shown in the movie.
  • There is no overall message about the meaning of life or anything like that in the film, but rather little things in each place.
  • It was a long process to choose the industries he wanted to show. He started with old worker heroes from the Soviet Union, which led him to the coal miners in the Ukraine. He also knew that he wanted to end in the park in Germany. He originally went to Nigeria to examine the oil workers, but instead became fascinated by the slaughterhouse instead (which may account for the slightly out-of-place feel to this segment relative to the other sections).
  • Production costs were quite high for this documentary, at least by European standards; it cost about $2 million to make.


My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
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