Where is the physical work gone? Work is seemingly becoming more and more ethereal, cognitive, immaterial. Well, that’s maybe just because hard physical work is maybe harder to envision, to watch, and still harder to celebrate or to follow. It has all but disappeared from media, propaganda, education or even entertainment. Just think about our model worker nowadays (laptop, smartphone, smart non-reflective glasses, clean hands). Nice work if you can get it (as Andrew Ross said in his seminal book). People doing hard work are not rare because hard work is becoming rarer, it just that work is more visible when it happens in a garage with a few bearded tattooed guys doing car customization or cool bikes. The blood, the rust and the toil is generally despised, neglected or frowned upon.
This documentary has several chapters (Heroes, Ghosts, Lions, Brothers and Future). Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was screened on Al Jazeera TV. Al Jazeera features some of the best documentaries i have seen lately, you can watch them online over here. The concept and realization is by Michael Glawogger. There are several version of it, the DVD version is better and uncut. For example on the Al Jazeera version there where several scenes missing from the miner’s ordeal, especially the scenes with women miners. The official site offers more information and spoiler alert gallery images.
In the 21st century working conditions haven’t improved much, and in some parts they got worse. This is no dystopia, it is no special report. There is something were grim but quite normal in these chapters, as when miners eat underground in illegal mines, casually like friends talking sandwiched between an incredible narrow and dangerous shaft, chatting about their goats. Or how displaced villagers working as shipbreakers chant waiting for immense rusted tankers to arrive and crash tons of metal underneath – in a scene that looks like some industrial cathedral collapsing. The “Lions” episode with the Niger/Lagos slaughterhouse is not for everybody, so please be warned. Awash with blood and entrails many people make a living by supplying the bustling megacity with roasted animal parts. These are workplaces from hell but for everybody working there it seems like a normal day on earth. People are working in these several hells, places that are nearly impossible to idealize or to romanticize. This doesn’t mean that there is no beauty, but the beauty is deadly as when we follow the Sulfur mining in Indonesia, on the rim of a volcano where every step may mean boiling death or deadly crash. The trail from the top to the valley where they weight their pack and get a day’s worth of money is hallucinatory, it is a geologists dream. But then you see what a distance there is btw the tourists taking pictures and these workers doing an incredibly difficult job just in the middle of the tourist trade. Safeness gets a new meaning, as a viewer you are completely safe and you just might risk changing your outlook on hard work but all the workers that you will follow are completely exposed and cannot count but on each other to get over the day.
Another thing when confronted with brutal insecurity and daily dangers, there are only rituals that can give meaning and appease the angry elements or mark the passage to retirement even when on top of a volcano or a industrial plant. No technical high tech miracles, no digital era wonders, all the promise of Silicon Valley and Facebook seems totally misplaced over here. There is also the sense that hard work is not only underpaid but also undervalued, that these different and diverse workers can hardly fit inside a clean and deodorized world that pushes them to the limit.