Judge Daryl Loomis once worked as a rooster mascot for a restaurant. It was a brutal job, but it sure did bring in the chicks.
It's a living.
There's a world of work out there for people who are willing to risk life and limb to earn a barely survivable income. In the most dangerous of industrial jobs, few steps are taken to protect the workers but, with no education and no means to find other employment, the workers have no choice except to continue toiling away for whatever they can get. There is something beautiful, if sad, in the sacrifices they make. The pride with which they work and their resolve to feed their families knows no bounds, though these people are the ones first forgotten. In Workingman's Death, Michael Glawogger focuses on some of these workers around the globe to paint a portrait of hard work and sacrifice in some of the worst imaginable conditions.
Over five vignettes and an epilogue, Glawogger takes us around the world to see these people at work, though he never presents the footage as any kind of "World's Most Dangerous Jobs" TV special. The jobs are, indeed, incredibly difficult and dangerous but, in this documentary, the job is a means to get inside the people working them. He begins in the Ukraine, where a group of clandestine miners scavenge abandoned Soviet mines for leftover bits of coal. In an 18-inch crawlspace, these men seem almost content down there, having lunch and smoking cigarettes, knowing all the while that the mine could collapse at any second. Next, to Indonesia, where people are paid a pittance to work the sulfur kitchens, quarries that have been tapped for molten sulfur, collecting the hardened residue into wicker baskets, walking unprotected through soupy clouds of sulfur to sell their haul for a few pennies per pound. South now, to a Nigerian slaughterhouse, a camp where people bring their livestock and pay by the head to have one guy walk around and slash their throats. Gruesome but, as the man with the machete, he can charge what he wants for his services. Back north, now, to Pakistan. Here, men work in a brotherhood of indentured servitude disassembling massive oil tankers and decommissioned ships. Cutting through hundreds of feet of steel with little to no protection, they work straight for months at a time, allowed only a couple of weeks a year to visit the families they work so hard to support. Finally to China, where steel workers toil at ancient blast furnaces trying desperately to honor their national heritage. In the end, Glawogger returns to his native Germany to show one of their old steel factories. No longer an active plant, it was turned into an amusement park. Teenagers making out in the spot where men fell to their death is an unsettling, satirical cap on the piece.
Workingman's Death is a phenomenal travelogue of inhumane working conditions. Glawogger succeeds in many things here. His portrayals of the jobs themselves are harrowing, to say the least. In the Ukraine, he places the camera directly in the crawlspace with the minders who spend countless hours on their backs, chipping away at the rock and breathing in the soot. Unbelievably claustrophobic, the workers hammer away chattering about their families, seemingly oblivious to the horror in which they work. Likewise in Indonesia, the camera walks us through billowing clouds of toxic yellow smoke, joining the workers as they break off hunks of the dried sulfur to carry it back through the clouds. To see the miners a mere foot from being crushed and the sulfur collectors a step away from a lake of molten sulfur, the sense of impending death is very real to them and it's no wonder that they do things, like sacrificing a goat once a year, to prevent accidents.
This isn't just about the dangerous jobs, however and, while there is some visceral imagery throughout this work, the people are more important than the task. Glawogger spends time with the workers both on the job and at rest, but never away from the workplace. For these people, there is no life outside of work. They work to survive and only survive to work the next day. The Chinese steel workers are so obsessed with fulfilling their obligation to their country and meeting the standards set by generations of steel workers. They don't have the time to consider how bad their conditions are or how they are exploited. When this is suggested to them, they agree, but also say that there is nowhere to go for them before turning back to their work. Throughout these segments, no matter what the job is, the workers all take supreme pride in their work. They know that they know nothing else and they're sad that they can't spend time with their families. Their stoic determination to survive is admirable to me; to them, it's their life.
Beautifully shot and edited, Workingman's Death is, on top of the story told, an expertly put together documentary that makes its point in the subject matter as well as in the production. It is unclear how much, if any, of the piece is staged, but some of the shots display some amazing images of nature and destruction. After the ship destroyers finish taking apart the entire front of a tanker, it is attached to a chain and slowly, very slowly, gets pulled from the rest of the ship and to the shore. Hundreds of tons of steel crashing to the ground is but one of many spectacular displays of the stakes of these jobs, most of which, ironically, go on in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. The music, as well, is of special note. The score, composed by the great modern composer and producer John Zorn (and also one of my all time favorite musicians), is a brilliant example of Morricone-inspired Western music, heavily featuring the Jew's harp and Brazilian percussion and sound effects. It grounds the film and adds an additional layer of atmosphere to an already powerful piece.
I watched Workingman's Death on a check disc, so it may look and sound different in the final product, and there may be extras. My disc had none. Still, the image looked very good. It was not anamorphic but, hopefully, the final disc will be. There are no transfer errors and it looks, ultimately, very clear. The surround sound is very good, filling the room with the oppressive industrial noise combined with the strange and beautiful music.
Glawogger's documentary is a sight to see; sad and gruesome, it still manages to give a lot of poor souls a lot of dignity.
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