One of the major pluses of an international film festival is the opportunity it offers to glimpse something of the culture of the countries you haven’t visited. This is especially useful when the said country is in the news – as Ukraine is now. Whether a documentary made by an ‘outside observer’ is an added bonus is a moot point. The Coal Miner’s Day was shot by the French documentarist Gaël Mocaër in 2010 and released in 2013.
The festival’s brochure makes a lot of the obvious interaction between the miners and the camera. The miners frequently refer to the “Frenchie” while looking at the camera. I don’t know if Gaël Mocaër speaks any Ukrainian but he credits a translator so probably not. I don’t mind a little interaction like this but I found it got tedious after a while, as did the habit of shooting as Mocaër was navigating the dangerous seams underground – there are many shots of feet and the ground they are walking on. (But the approach does reveal how dangerous the work is.)
More important is the structure of a documentary. I don’t mind a radical structure if the film is meant to explore form and narrative, but in a documentary that genuinely attempts to document, structure becomes an important part of communication. Here Mocaër uses the annual ‘Coal Miner’s Day’ at a colliery in North-West Ukraine to bookend his account of a year he spent documenting the activities at the mine. We learn about the outdated machinery that is always breaking down and the inadequate health & safety standards. We hear about the miners’ wages (€300 per month) and one comments on the cost of the camera that Mocaër uses, pointing out that at €8,000 it’s the equivalent of a mini-van. (The wages are actually higher than those in any town-based job.) We see the mine manager trying to get more from his workers and suggesting that they aren’t pulling their weight and we see a rather officious canteen manager berating her staff, but we don’t see a real dispute between the miners and their bosses. It’s still a state-owned mine and there seems to be some sense of collectivism left amidst the usual grumbles. Given the working conditions and lack of proper equipment you feel that the men have major grievances, but the miners and their families seem to take the celebrations of Miner’s Day (seemingly another hangover from Soviet days) as genuine. In a subtle moment, Mocaër’s camera picks out a Soviet era belt buckle and you do wonder if the miners are better off now or not? (The Soviet emblems crop up several times in the film.)
The film seems to give Mocaër’s direct observation/impression of the miners’ life at work. There are tantalising glimpses of the wider society (horse and cart as public transport in winter – not very different from Tolstoy’s time), but I would have liked to see more of the local community and the miners’ culture. Do they sing, have libraries and social clubs etc.? I’d also like to know more about the coal industry and the future for the miners. I realise this would be another film and I can accept this film as it is but I think it could have been more. Having said that, Gaël Mocaër has done a terrific job in producing the film virtually on his own. Shooting it was dangerous work and it always looks good, so as a piece of genuine film art it should be celebrated. Perhaps though, he could find some collaborators and return or someone else could give us the broader picture of Ukrainian mining culture?
There is a website (in French) for the film which I have not had the time (or skill) to fully translate, but from the little I have read, Gaël Mocaër explains his approach. I was amazed to read that the mine only opened in 1992.