Workingman's Death (2005) Poster

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An important film
LeRoyMarko21 September 2005
Very good documentary about the working conditions of five groups of workers. Even though it's the twenty-first century, the director wants us to know that a lot of workers across the world have not benefited from the advancement in technology. First, we're off to Ukraine to learn about the work of some coal miners. Their work conditions are just unbelievable. Then, the director brings us to Indonesia to show us the hard work done by the sulfur miners (I didn't know nothing about this line of work). We are then transported to Pakistan, where we are shown the work of ship-breakers. Again, I was unaware that ship "cemetaries" of this sort still existed today. The open slaughterhouse of a Nigerian city is next. Animal activists beware: don't watch! I was just fascinated by the chaos that seems to reign in that place. Finally, we are shown the working conditions in the steel industry of China.

All those segments are presented without real context. There's no narration. But it's easy to follow, to get the point. And the images say a thousand words. Beautiful cinematography and very good camera movement. Some times, the camera moves with the subject, Some times, subject and camera are not moving. It's like a photo shot. One thing is for sure, you always feel like you're in the middle of the action. Even though, you see the despair, you can also see hope in what most of these workers say. Watch it. It's a great eye-opener.

Seen at the Toronto International Film Festival (at the Cumberland Cinemas), on September 17th, 2005.

87/100 (***½)
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Dirty work, beautifully captured
mcnally28 January 2006
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. After you see this film, you'll never complain about your job again. Subtitled something like "Five Portraits of Work in the Twenty-First Century," Glawogger's documentary features some of the most dangerous, difficult, or just plain unpleasant work in the world.

Each segment except the last one is about twenty-five minutes long, and is shot without any voice-over narration and very little editorializing. We are simply presented with people working and talking about their work. The director possesses a very painterly sense of composition, and we're often presented with shots of workers posing as if they were in front of a still camera. The camera-work is even more impressive when it is moving, and I often found myself wondering how they were able to film in some of these conditions.

The segments follow, in order, a group of miners in Ukraine who have dug their own coal shafts, a group of men in Indonesia who collect sulfur from an active volcano and haul it down the mountainside, butchers at an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria, men who break apart rusting ships for scrap metal in Pakistan, and steelworkers in China. Although all of these workers are merely surviving, the thing that struck me most was how contented, even happy, most of them were.

That being said, three of the five segments featured Islamic societies, and I found myself wondering about the connections between the conditions these men were working in and the rise of Islamic radicalism. Among the shipbreakers in Pakistan, for instance, there was an interesting segment which followed a photographer who circulated among the men charging them a fee to take pictures of them holding an assault rifle. There was no voice-over, but I got the impression that these men wanted to be seen as revolutionaries instead of just subsistence scrap workers.

The most intense segment had to be among the butchers, and there was quite a lot of blood and gore evident as we watched the men work. But strangely, I found this a more honest approach to the production of food than I saw in the factory farms in a film like We Feed The World. These butchers are "hands-on," literally.

The final segment, filmed among steelworkers in China, was the shortest, and the least interesting, but the director was trying to end with the optimism of the Chinese workers for the steel industry, which he contrasts with shots of a defunct steel mill in Germany that's been turned into an art installation. His point was slightly unclear, but overall, his unflinching eye for detail, even in some harrowing work environments, makes this documentary a must- see.
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Review from 2005 TIFF
riid11 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

Workingman's Death, by Michael Glawogger, is a documentary in the basest sense of the word, in that it simply presents five stories of workers around the world working in dangerous, back-breaking physical labour, without any narration or obvious context other than what is shown.

The film shows miners in the Ukraine working an abandoned coal mine in unbelievably claustrophobic conditions. It then moves to sulphur miners in Indonesia, collecting sulphur from active volcanic vents. Next is an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria that processes goats and cattle. Then come shipbreakers in Pakistan who cut apart old ships for scrap. And finally steel workers in China are shown before the film ends in a former foundry, now park, in Germany.

The film is adept at showing the extremely difficult and threatening conditions people have to work in, usually for little money or simply to survive. The scenes in Nigeria were especially interesting to watch, showing the interplay between all the people in the market, each with their own specific job; the images are also quite graphic.

However, the Nigerian segment does seem out of step with the rest of the movie in that it didn't seem to be especially dangerous (as per the title of the film), but rather just physically demanding. Part of the reason for this is described in the Q&A below.

Glawogger wanted to close the film at the abandoned foundry in Germany to show the future and where things were going, but I didn't necessarily feel the film lead to that. If anything, what I got was that even in the 21st century, with all the technology and progress that has been made, physical labour and heavy industry is still a big part of work around the world and that is not going to go away anytime soon, especially with the way the world economy works today.

Still, the images he shows on screen are pretty powerful and do communicate a real sense of the work, people, environment, and the sheer effort in each locale.

Michael Glawogger attended the screening and was present for a Q&A after the film: - When asked while the segment in China was so short compared to the other segments in the film, Glawogger replied that it was the last segment shot, and he decided to make it short to transition to the epilogue in Germany. He felt he had shown enough of the sensual part of work in the other parts. In China he found a strong belief that the future is bright, akin to Europe after World War II, and that led into the German segment which shows where the future is ending.

  • Someone asked how Glawogger managed to get John Zorn to score the film; Glawogger replied that he simply asked.

  • Glawogger was asked how he managed to gain access to his subjects; he said it was patience, i.e. the normal documentary process, where you spend time with people, make friends, and they soon open up. He spent time every day with his subjects, which showed them he was serious about his work, which caused them to take him seriously. He spent about three weeks to a month in each location, with the exception of China, where the government takes a dim view of foreigners spending that much time in their foundries talking to their workers (which I guess may also account for the shorter length of that segment of the film).

  • When asked what he learned, Glawogger said he was surprised by the diversity of the situations. For example, at first glance, the Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse looks horrible, like an inferno, but it's not really like that, and in fact the people there are the happiest of anyone shown in the movie.

  • There is no overall message about the meaning of life or anything like that in the film, but rather little things in each place.

  • It was a long process to choose the industries he wanted to show. He started with old worker heroes from the Soviet Union, which led him to the coal miners in the Ukraine. He also knew that he wanted to end in the park in Germany. He originally went to Nigeria to examine the oil workers, but instead became fascinated by the slaughterhouse instead (which may account for the slightly out-of-place feel to this segment relative to the other sections).

  • Production costs were quite high for this documentary, at least by European standards; it cost about $2 million to make.
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It's a Living...
davesteele-milwaukee25 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I recently saw this film at the 2006 Milwaukee International Film Festival. It's a moving testament to the strength and resiliency of human beings, who manage to find a sense of purpose, and even pride, in the sheer act of survival under the most difficult circumstances.

"Workingman's Death" is an eye-opening experience that takes the viewer into some of the worst working conditions in the world: an illegal coal mine in Ukraine, a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a sulfur mine in Indonesia, and a shipbreaking yard in Pakistan. The film starkly portrays these harsh settings and the (mostly) men who toil within them. There is no "expert" testimony, no voiceovers, no narrator, only the men themselves who do the work. The camera follows them as they carry out their tasks, take breaks and go home after a hard day. The only commentary is from the workers themselves, talking about their jobs.

The film is an intimate portrait of how these workers keep their spirits intact through all of this back breaking labor. The Ukrainian coal miners see themselves as heroes, carrying on the legacy of the once-great Soviet coal machine. In Indonesia, a rabble-rouser comes to the sulfur mine for work, and, amidst his dangerous and physically grueling work, shoots the breeze with his coworkers about prostitutes and bar brawls. A worker in the Nigerian slaughterhouse says that his job cleaning the severed heads of cows makes him special, because he has skills that other workers don't have. The workers at the shipbreaking yard in Pakistan consider themselves part of a brotherhood; they look out for the fellow workers and pull together to help a friend in trouble.

In "Workingman's Death," we see the will of people to carry on. The workers in this film are oppressed people, but they refuse to think of themselves as slaves. They find pride, brotherhood and even humor in their work, no matter how dire the circumstances. The cinematography is beautiful, the music haunting. Never before has hard work been more artfully portrayed.

The film features graphic footage of animal slaughter, and the segment on the Nigerian slaughterhouse will be especially disturbing to many people. Unfortunately, it's the graphic nature of this film that will probably prevent from getting wide release, at least in the US. This is a shame, because this is a film that can remind us all of our common humanity.
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The 20 mins of Slaughter was too much
ken-roberts-128 December 2012
I was fascinated by this documentary and wanted to see more. Then the long, never-ending series of animal murders began. I am not an animal activist but I should be, because nothing bothers me more than to see a human being kill an animal. Those scenes made Hannibal Lector look like an alter boy.

The horror of it - I watched for 3 minutes or so and had to turn it off. Each animal saw and smelled all the death around him as he was dragged around in the mud, waiting his turn. The twitching bodies of those still not quite dead . . . too much. I realize that those people did it to feed and support themselves - but I will never forget those scenes. Maybe that was the point.
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Interesting as well as horrifying
revolutioner11 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"Workingman's Death" is a difficult movie to review. The first segment about Ukranians mining coal from small illegal mines in one of the coldest, most remote spots on the planet, is fascinating. We follow these hard workers on their journey to and from the mines. We visit the home of a miner and meet his wife and the family (a baby goat) and the entire segment was delightful. Next, we travel to Indonesia and see some incredible footage of men extracting sulfur from the mountains and this too, is something that you have probably never seen before. There are some very funny moments as well and this story was also a winner.

What I found much less compelling were the final two stories about Pakistanis taking apart giant ships no longer being used and an obsolete power plant in China that has been turned into a park. Unique...yes. Interesting...not really.

The ugliness came in the form of a segment about workers in Nigeria. Honestly, if I knew about this beforehand, there is zero chance that I would have attended this screening. It begins with animal horns being tossed onto a large pile and then we see several large animals being led to an area. At this point, my sensors were activated. I was saying to myself...please God--let this be some sort of African rodeo...but when I heard voices shouting and the subtitles read INNARDS..SKIN...INNARDS!, I bolted out of the theater at record speed. The bloodbath apparently continued for about 25 minutes. Since I didn't witness this horror show, here is the description in the festival program guide: "A purer form of hell is found in a Nigerian slaughter yard where the bleating animals (graphically portrayed) seem more human than the men and women killing, portioning, roasting, selling—and praying." All-righty then! Now at least you know that this isn't going to be the "feel good hit of the summer"...

In the Q and A following the film, director Michael Glawogger was quite charming in talking about his work. Someone asked if it will be seen on television. Glawogger was hopeful, saying that he expected that it would eventually make it to the small screen. I can tell you with absolute certainty, that this will NEVER be seen on American television in any way shape or form, unless the Nigerian segment is deleted.

A DVD will probably be released in the future, and until then, "Workingman's Death" will enjoy a limited release in the U.S.
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A brilliant testimony of our times...
poison197726 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I haven't been so shocked by a movie in a year. This film represents the extreme experiences of workers in five places in the world. It's extraordinarily well shot and it's provoking and profound. Unlike Michael Moore, Glawogger allows the viewers to think, to feel and to react... I strongly recommend this film. There's nothing funny about this. The filmmakers share the experiences with the characters they depict. The claustrophobia of an illegal mine in Ukraine, the long exhausting walks of the sulfur workers in Indonesia, the bloodbath of the butchers in Nigeria, the danger of the ships cemetery in Pakistan and the last days of an iron factory in China. It depicts the state of the workingman in the world nowadays. 10 out of 10.
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