Ben Russell’s latest experimental documentary studies the men that labour in the copper and gold mines of Serbia and Suriname.
The opening shot of Good Luck is a collage of images set to the ominous beat of a drum and off-key trumpets–are we in Serbia or Suriname? Lush green trees, mists and a massive, bleak hill of sandy-coloured mine waste under a blue sky segues to a scene of a mournful brass band marching out of a ruined mine building, the white faces and scruffy Communist-era uniforms tell us this is Serbia.
As may be expected from Ben Russell, a prolific Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker, the opening shots are hauntingly beautiful and very arty.
Russell is a renowned experimental filmmaker, whose central concerns “as an artist, filmmaker and curator… lie at the intersection of ethnography and psychedelia”, according to a write-up by London’s Tate Gallery where the film screened early February followed by a Q&A with the director.
From the bright primary colours of the opening sequence where a band member laments the loss of the mining village he grew up in (“It has all been swallowed by ‘the pit’ ”, he says without emotion), Russell cuts to a black and white shot of a miner, his face partially shaded by an old-fashioned hard hat, drawing on a cigarette. Again, the shot could be frozen as a still, framed and hung on the wall of a modern art gallery such is the silver-gelatine depth of its image.
«There is no dialogue, just men walking and then drilling with aged equipment into solid rock faces.»
The opening titles appear–Good Luck in parenthesis beneath the Serbian translation Srećno–signalling the Serbian half of a story that literally plumbs the depths of the fundamentals of contemporary capitalism by examining the lives and plights of men who mine copper in Serbia and gold in Suriname.
The transition from the world of light and air to the depths of the earth is done virtually in real time: miners dressed in blue overalls and hard-plastic helmets, amble through the austere corridors of the pithead before entering a steel cage for the 600 metre descent to the mine tunnels. For anyone who has ever been down a copper mine (full disclosure: I have, twice–once in southern Russia and once in central Kazakhstan), the experience is a strangely moving and deeply unsettling one, bordering on the mythical, even the psychedelic, as one emerges into vast tunnels many metres in diameter through which gigantic mining vehicles move like some ancient beasts from another age.
«If you are afraid, then you are out of this mine.»
– quote from a miner.
The mine in Bor, Serbia looks rather anachronistic: it is not well lit and, as the men emerge from their cage to talk along dark tunnels, the sensation is one of swimming through a deep ocean trough lit only by the bobbing lights of their headlamps.
There is no dialogue, just men walking and then drilling with aged equipment into solid rock faces. When Russell turns to individual portraits of the men (there are eleven such sequences in the film) we see for many long seconds full face and full screen men who probably don’t spend nearly as much time studying their features when taking their daily shave. We begin to understand something of their world through fly-on-the-wall footage of their tea breaks, where they chat and smoke, swapping stories and anecdotes in Serbian (fortunately with English subtitles).
“I’m afraid of heights, not depths fortunately!” one man quips, as he swiftly steers a conversation away from political matters. “We said no politics,” he reminds an off-screen interviewer, though later when asked, “What are you afraid of?” one man–lit by a small circle of light from a headlamp–answers, “That Prime Minister Vučić will win the election because then we are all fucked!” Another, more sober voice counsels: “We shouldn’t talk about this on camera.”
Joking apart, the men, who all deny they have no fear (“If you are afraid, then you are out of this mine…”), have ordinary concerns: for more pay; to ensure their children are educated; to get out of the mine.
«I spent months in these mines simply because I wanted to better understand how men persevere.»
– quote from Ben Russell (the filmmaker)
This is an exploration culled from many months of joining the men underground, seeking to understand the comradeship and shared dangers of men literally in the frontlines of what underpins capitalism.
Russell takes his theme further in the second part of this long (almost two and a half hours) film, a switch introduced almost exactly at the midpoint of Good Luck through flashing lights and a circular geometric pattern that looks like an old-fashioned editing mark.
Immediately we are in a totally different world: the lush tropical jungle of Suriname, where a man in a tattered T-shirt, with a pickaxe nonchalantly tucked down his back, is scanning a narrow pathway with a sophisticated metal detector.
It may be a world away, and the mining technique is opencast and surface water panning, but here in the same type of devastated natural landscape men live lives parallel to those in the Serbian caverns.
The Suriname section follows the same leisurely pace as the first half of the film; it is, as they love to say in some parts of the world, “same, same only different.” (And its title Kölōku in Saramaccan, the local dialect, comes in the final minutes, an elegant bookend for the film.)
Russell returns to the same leitmotifs–black and white images of men staring into the camera between longer sections about their lives pumping water and scraping earth, in search of the same ideas of escape from poverty and the working world that traps them. It is perhaps not accidental that we never actually see the results of all this hard work: not an ounce of copper or a gram of gold is clearly shown.
The film originally premiered in the 2017 edition of the contemporary art exhibition documenta 14 as a multi-room installation and Russell says, “From the outset, it felt too easy to critique a process that all of us are directly implicated in, to have a public opinion about the horrors and environmental destruction that are part and parcel of the mining process–be it legal or illegal. It ultimately wasn’t the process that interested me as much as the side effects of the process: the community that arises out of harsh conditions, the collective that manifests out of necessity. I spent months in these mines simply because I wanted to better understand how men persevere.”
Produced in association with ARTE France, with support from CNC and the Berlin-Brandenburg film fund.
Filmed at the RTB Copper mine, Bor, Serbia & Kiiki Neigi Gold Mine, Brokopondo District, Suriname.