Film Festival explores jobs from hell
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Faces of Mechanization, the 2008 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival, opened last week and runs through Tuesday.
Movies, ranging from Polish art films and German documentaries to Argentinian film noir, explore the questions: How does technology affect the food we eat, the blue jeans we buy, the Mardi Gras beads we sling around our necks, even the children we have and the way we live and think?
Here are capsule reviews of a sampling of movies playing during the second week:
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Every now and then you see an article about "worst jobs" in America -- the ones somebody has to do (and may even like to do), but you're glad it's not you: embalmer, hot asphalt-mixer, car repo man, manure-spreader ...
Those chores are sheer delight compared with the occupations on display in "Workingman's Death: Five Portraits of Work in the Twenty-First Century," director Michael Glawogger's mesmerizing documentary about some of the most unbelievably difficult physical labor on the planet.
Take the coal miners of the Donbass region in Ukraine, for instance.
Back in the 1930s, the veins were so rich that 100 tons could often be extracted in one shift. Nowadays, with the depletion of supplies and the blessings of capitalism, "freelance" miners dig holes in the sides of abandoned government mines, scraping out their own shafts, lying on their bellies in a crawl space 20 inches high, chipping out small glistening lumps from the seam remnants and then kicking the pieces back toward the surface with their feet.
The Ukrainian miners not only work lying down, they eat lying down, too. There's not enough room even to sit up, let alone stand up. Are they scared?
"All the time," says one grizzled, coal-blackened soul. "If it caves in just 10 centimeters, we're all dead."
Then there are the Indonesians. Their job is collecting sulfur from an active volcano and hauling it down a mountain. In Nigeria, meanwhile, there are the guts-and-gore-covered butchers at their open-air slaughterhouse.
In Pakistan, some of the more radical Islamic workers consider themselves revolutionaries as they go about the task of smashing up rusted old ships for scrap metal. By contrast, the steelworkers in China have it relatively easy.
And don't ask how much -- meaning, how little -- they get paid for their back-breaking, mind-numbing, accident-ridden, 12-hour days. In all cases, it's a pittance of a subsistence wage.
Writer-director Glawogger has a painter's sense of frame composition and lets the riveting images -- and the workers themselves -- tell the stories. How he and his camera were able to film in some of these harrowing environments (inside a dark 20-inch hole!) is one of the glorious as well as sorrowful mysteries. There's little dialogue, and little is needed. The film is largely devoid of voice-over narration or didactic editorializing.
Amazingly enough, most of the men and women in these brutal occupations are unself-pitying, if not actually upbeat. "Workingman's Death" is not a lugubrious lament but a tribute to them and the inextinguishable human spirit. Glawogger is fascinated by the grace as well as the horror of their hellish labors -- with a deep respect for both.
It leaves you almost as exhausted as the laborers. But you'll never complain about your "worst American job" again.
PG-13 in nature for subtitles
-- Barry Paris, Post-Gazette film critic
3 stars = Good
As if you don't feel guilty enough in your Chinese jeans (the subject of another festival film), documentary director David Redmon has something to make you feel even guiltier about wearing: those garishly colorful Mardi Gras beads -- symbols of the orgiastic revelry at New Orleans's annual Fat Tuesday blowout.
They come cheap. Too cheap, for those who sacrifice dearly to make them.
"Mardi Gras: Made in China" is less an examination than a personalization of the cultural and economic realities of globalization. We start out with shots of the wild and crazy beads-for-breast-baring game in Louisiana. Then we shift to Fuzhou, China, and four teenage girls working in the world's largest Mardi Gras bead factory.
The working conditions and the factory compound's prison-like dorms must be seen to be believed -- no less than the severe discipline. About 90 percent of the workers are women, due to their sacrificial docility.
It is easier for us to control the lady workers than the man workers, says their unctuous, unapologetic boss. They work 14-hour days for a pittance, operating dangerous machines that use electric volts to heat pins and melt beads together. A gothic system of quotas and punishments is rigidly enforced. The penalty for talking on the factory floor is a day's wages; for sex in the dorms, it's a month's wages.
All the while, the gentle young Chinese girls slave away, uncomplaining.
All the while, the young American girls and boys party away, uncomprehending.
Redmon's doc offers no solutions, just a new and disturbing awareness.
2 1/2 stars = Average
You won't think about food, glorious food in quite the same way after partaking of "Our Daily Bread," which shows how assembly-line efficiency is a constant in food production.
Filmed in Europe between October 2003 and 2005, "Our Daily Bread" is a documentary about food production that shows how apples are washed in what looks like an Olympic-size swimming pool, how potatoes are harvested, how salmon are vacuumed out of a fjord, and how cows are zapped in the head, sliced open so fluids can gush out, skinned and sawed into progressively smaller slabs.
It's enough to make you a vegetarian, although director Nikolaus Geyrhalter uses no narration or interviews, lending a purity to the project but also a sense that something's missing.
"Our Daily Bread," with its matter-of-fact approach, seamless editing and artful shots of scenes beautiful and brutal, is no "Fast Food Nation." Still, it makes you think that old-fashioned farm life -- raising and killing what you later put on the table -- might be far more humane after all.
-- Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette movie editor
First Published April 10, 2008 12:00 am