The sheer slog of life

Documentary film - It has become fashionable to release quirky documentaries about social oddities.

''Cinema does not have the strength to change the world," declares the Austrian director Michael Glawogger, "but it can change our perception of the world. It is cap- able of touching all the senses. Of making us feel the weight of someone carrying a big load."

Both mainstream and independent films today, hobbled by goofball irony and bereft of anything approaching political commitment, rarely deliver on that pro-mise. A striking exception is Glawogger's new documentary, Workingman's Death, in which he travels to some of the most dismal sites around the world in order to reveal local labourers eking out a living in near-infernal conditions.

In Ukraine, miners crawl and squeeze into the veins of old pits, hacking away illegally to excavate tiny hunks of coal; in East Java, Indonesia, workers haul sulphur from the crater of a smoking volcano; at an outdoor abattoir in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, young men kill and hawk hundreds of goats and bulls every morning, all the while shouting: "Skin! Innards! Head!" In Gadani, Pakistan, hundreds of ex-farmers set about the scrapping of old oil tankers with little more than their bare hands; meanwhile, the steelworkers of Liaoning Province in China echo the utopian rhetoric of the Ukrainian miners' forefathers and exult in their role in helping to create a modern, prosperous nation.

Glawogger's elegiac and revelatory documentary shows in the most visceral fashion imaginable that, for all the recent attention paid to the phenomenon of call-centres or various forms of offshore commerce, a great deal of work in the developing world is still of the back-breaking, life-threatening variety. It is tempting to compare it with the still photography of Sebastiao Salgado; however, where the Brazilian tends towards a numeric approach - focusing his lens on swarming masses of migrants and labourers - Glawogger prefers to point his camera at smaller groups of workers in order to emphasise their hard-won solidarity.

The hefters, breakers, luggers and diggers that he portrays are repeatedly categorised throughout the film. The Ukrainian miners work very close to the spot where, in 1935, the 29-year-old Aleksei Stakhanov was reputed to have dug 102 tonnes of coal in a single shift, 14 times his quota. They, like him, are branded as "heroes"; the Nigerians who drag carcasses through an open-air slaughterhouse are "lions" and the Chinese steelworkers are "brothers".

I ask Glawogger if he thinks such terms amount to a form of sentimentality. "In Ukraine, I got the miners to stand like the Communist statues that are found in their home towns. They were reluctant, but I told them, 'You're bigger heroes than those statues.' These men used to be seen as heroes, like pop stars today. They worked in the most advanced mines and were so well off that they supported the miners' strike in the UK in 1984. Then suddenly many of those mines closed and fell into nothingness. The real disappearance, however, is not of work, but of the recognition the miners get for their work. The title of the film, then, is a provocation rather than a statement. It should have a question mark after it."

Partly due to the success of Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine, documentaries are cropping up on the big screen with growing regularity. Many of these films, among them Super Size Me, The Yes Men and Czech Dream, aim to be cheap and punchy cultural interventions. What they lack, however, is aesthetics; they work as celluloid versions of game-show pranks and newspaper investigations more effectively than they do on any visual or poetic level. Rarely do they linger in the imagination.

Glawogger, who describes himself as a "male, white, first-world director", offers, both here and in his previous documentaries such as Megacities (1998), a cinema that is as beautiful as it is political. Fires, connoting life and redemptive rage as much as they do destruction, appear in almost every segment. His work heaves with sorrow and with pity. The immensity of its abjection appals. And yet, always, he insists on demonstrating the will to survive of these wretched of the earth: "At first, the Nigerian slaughterhouse looked like a Hieronymus Bosch painting," he says. "Yet there was so much joy among the workers; they really felt privileged to be doing their jobs. The market was so thoroughly alive."

And it is this quality of aliveness that makes Workingman's Death such a vital film. It refuses to trade in picturesque misery in order to strengthen its critique of the damage wrought by neoliberal economics. Rather, aided by a dynamic score by John Zorn, it is a document of ongoing defiance, a paean to workers around the world who continue to laugh, who refuse to be crushed by the heaviest load that capitalism places on them. Ultimately, the inextinguishable spirit of its subjects ensures that Glawogger's film is not the obituary its title suggests.

Workingman's Death will be screened as part of the London Film Festival at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, on 24 and 27 October. For tickets call 020 7928 3232

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The debt pandemic