Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
LABOUR: Miners trained for the manual skills of the 20th century come up against 21st-century realities when their pit closes.

(Translated from English by Google Gtranslate)

Epochs run on different timelines in different countries and societies. The 20th century shuddered to a halt in the West during the 1980s as deindustrialisation and the first signs of post-industrial automation began to disrupt the lifelines of ordinary people.

In Eastern Europe, where the austere command economies of communism held back the tide of modernisation, jobs long seen as archaic in the UK – mining in particular – held on for another 40 years, into the first two decades of the 21st century.

The men of the Paskov coal mine, in the hardscrabble Czech Silesian town of Ostrava, are a breed fast becoming extinct, and they know it.

A new life

Jindřich Andrš’s film picks up the story where his short film, The Last Shift of Tomáš Hisem left off, and follows the fate of his hero after he finishes his last engineering shift deep underground and surfaces to the bright arc lights of a waiting posse of television reporters and photographers.

As the men of the last shift emerge – some taciturn, others embittered – Tomáš expresses confidence that he can retrain as a computer programmer and embark on a new life.

A New Shift-Jindřich Andrš-post1
A New Shift, a film by Jindřich Andrš


It is no spoiler to say that the 44 year old divorced father of three will face a difficult struggle as he leaves the grubby womb of the mine behind, loses the diurnal rituals of male companionship in the face of hard and dangerous work, and is forced to compete for jobs after just four months retraining at the local technical university with kids half his age who were weaned on 21st century technologies.

Andrš is a skilful and unobtrusive filmmaker who signals the rites of passage obliquely and cleverly. Scrubbed clean of the colliery grime, our would-be programmer first heads to the hairdressers to lose his long blond locks – a hairstyle that is itself a leftover of another age. The first cut may be the unkindest of all – he leaves after paying his 90 koruna (€3.30) – looking like a prematurely aged lion that has bitten off more than it can chew, the uneven edges probably the result of his own indecision over how short to go.

If some viewers may think of the barber shop scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that is probably not an unintended flourish by the director. Tomáš is definitely headed for a baptism of fire.

The men of the Paskov coal mine, in the hardscrabble Czech Silesian town of Ostrava, are a breed fast becoming extinct, and they know it.

But the stocky and cheerful character is bright and resourceful and applies himself to his studies – even when they extend to brushing up his foreign language skills.

In one of the more groan-inducing sequences (particularly for a native English speaking viewer) Tomáš struggles through an English lesson where the tutor’s English is barely better than his and instructions are delivered in an execrable accent that sets one’s teeth on edge.

The hard-drinking, hard-smoking ex-miner soldiers on, supported by a new girlfriend and regular outings with his mates (both in his local pub and on the terraces of their beloved soccer team’s stadium).

He takes multiple rejections from firms he applies to with admirable sang-froid, and – in a reminder that he remains conditioned by the glacial pace of change he has long lived with – we see him and his mates enthusiastically jumping and up and down to a local punk group at a crowded gig. The ex-miners of this town are definitely examples of what the Russians would refer to as Home Sovieticus, if that is not an impolite term to apply to a generation that came of age during the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution.

A New Shift-Jindřich Andrš-post2
A New Shift, a film by Jindřich Andrš

Balanced and nuanced

The director is careful to give a balanced and nuanced view of Tomáš – we see he is caring and attentive father to his teenaged boys and younger daughter – and that he is determined to see things through. It is a sympathetic portrait where you cannot help but root for the man.

Tomáš finally lands a job as a programmer at a local Czech firm and, after a couple of TV appearances, is even invited to give a talk at a special Prague edition of the famous TEDx talks – where his humour and humility wins much applause.

A New Shift is a story of an everyman for our times. As a statement in the closing credits reminds us, Tomáš is just one of the 800 million manual labourers who will lose their jobs worldwide over the next decade or so.

A New Shift won Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival «Czech Joy» & Institute of Documentary Film Silver Eye Award (feature-length).

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