Workingman’s trial and triumph

If you’ve ever complained about your job, you’d better watch this documentary. «Workingman’s Death,» a wonderfully crafted epic-style mosaic of gritty manual labor by Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, on show at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, «Images of the 21st Century,» offers devastating glimpses of the most filthy, dangerous, and sometimes hellish genres of hard labor still around today (the film won the Best Documentary Award at Dok Leipzig last year). Glawogger, creator of 1998’s much acclaimed «Megacities,» fixes his lens on five different parts of the world to show how people have to travel to hell and back every day to make their daily bread. The end product is a not-so-attractive mosaic of physical labor. But at the same time, it is an ode to human perseverance. The film opens with images of Stalin-propaganda icon Aleksei Stakhanov, a miner who, legend has it, extracted 102 tons of coal in less than six hours (14 times his quota), before the camera goes on to visit his modern-day descendants. Five sacked miners of Ukrainian state mines in the Donbass region where Stakhanov once performed his wonders, have illegally put a pit back in operation albeit with more humble ambitions; to heat their homes and buy some food for their families. During a break from their arduous work in the «mousetraps,» the claustrophobic and life-threatening underground crevices, the miners leave no doubt that the inspiration from the local hero has died for good. «That was just a show, a movement,» one of them tells the camera, his face covered in coal dust. «We just want to survive.» From ice-cold Ukraine, we are taken to the boiling-hot crater of an Indonesian volcano where sulfur miners shoulder bamboo baskets to carry up to 100-kilo chunks all the way up and down the treacherous mountainside. In a surreal twist to their Sisyphean task, the sulfur carriers tread through groups of curious and light-hearted tourists who look ludicrous, even cruel as they try to capture one of the fraught workers in one of their photo frames. Bourgeois guilt comes into play as Glawogger’s political message becomes loud and clear despite the absence of any voice-over narration: The tide of globalization, he tells us, has not lifted all boats. Hard to watch The most disturbing images come from an open-air Nigerian slaughterhouse as the hyperactive and realistic camera does not tire of exposing the throat slitting, slicing and roasting of goats and bulls destined for the local meat market. These people are proud and confident of what they’re doing. But the blood-covered setting is a hair-raising experience for the average Western viewer – let alone food inspectors and animal rights activists. The next stop is the Gaddani port of Pakistan. People travel from miles away here every year to tear apart decommissioned oil tankers. The ship-breakers are dwarfed by the giant metal carcasses onto which they climb to execute their scrapping task. Flying steel and oil leftovers pose a constant danger to these people, who manage to overcome the year-long struggle by earthly and not-so-earthly means: strong friendships and faith. Complex and beautiful shots, like those of huge chunks of steel crashing into the water, make sure form lives up to content. Terrific camera work by Wolfgang Thaler and the avant-garde score by John Zorn are a charm for art-house audiences. The spotlight finally falls on the steel industry of China, a vast nation preparing to cast itself as the next global powerhouse. The mood among Chinese steelworkers is quite upbeat as people here seem to have more confidence in the economic boom and better things to come. Others know better. The film ends with images of German kids playing in a steelworks-turned-arts installation. Blast furnaces have no place in a better future. «Workingman’s Death» will be screened on Friday at 10 p.m. at the Pavlos Zannas Theater (10 Aristotelous Square, tel 2310.378.400).