Requiem for a lost industrial existence

CAPITALISM / A paradigmatic story of Croatia, and all other Eastern European transition countries.

Croatian documentary filmmaker Goran Dević grapples with a familiar post-industrial tale in What’s to be done? – his story of the demise of a famous old Croatian rolling stock factory, Gredelj, that filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

What's to be Done Goran Dević
What’s To Be Done?, a film by Goran Dević

A decade in the making

Shot over a decade, this is a film of two halves: the early footage, chronicling the chronological demise of a factory, the fate of its workers and their hopes to combat corrupt management and nasty divide-and-rule tactics, revolves around a charismatic union rep, Željko Starčević, who is elected as the head of a workers’ crisis committee to try to save the venerable old factory, founded well over a century before.

The second part, shot after the sacked workers finally are granted lost wages amounting to some €20 million, comes ten years after the first footage, where we see a group of former Gredelj machinists, engineers, and clerical workers watching a rough cut of the years of footage before they vent their sadness and anger at the loss of a life that many experienced as more of a family than a factory job.

It is at this point that Dević’s film really becomes interesting; the final 10 minutes take viewers on a hauntingly poetic and emotional journey through the grief the abandoned workers feel – by depicting them literally going through the motions of their old jobs in ruined old factory workshops long stripped of any saleable machinery.

It is a poignant end to a film that begins as a classic fly-on-the-wall documentary, complete with shaky hand-held camera shots and chaotic scenes of union meetings.

this is a film of two halves

Post-modernist tragedy

That this is a post-modernist tragedy is clearly signalled in the explosive opening moments, as Željko clashes with other union members while preparing a candlelit memorial for another union head who has just committed suicide. The dead man, a Balkans war veteran suffering from PTSD, had shot himself through the jugular and died instantly, Željko tells his stunned colleagues. There is a brief moment of hope when a decision is taken to cooperate with managers the union blames for widespread corruption and rising debts, and a new high-speed train is delivered to prospective buyers in Vienna – just a five-hour journey at 140km/hour. It is not enough to save Gredelj, and we next see the workers massed at the factory gates to hear the dread news from an official receiver that the company has declared bankruptcy and they will all lose their jobs.

Thus far, the film is a very standard industrial relations documentary that viewers with insufficient engagement or emotional stake in the characters could be justified in leaving for a more interesting screening. Stick with it, for as the story unfolds, and some workers are taken back on, it becomes a story familiar the world over – the crushing forces of post-industrial capitalism that few, if any, workers are able to resist.

Following the twists and turns on the road to the eventual, inevitable demise of the factory – through demonstrations, political campaigning, TV interviews – we begin to understand that this is literally a story of life and death.

Dević self-consciously divides the chronology with a sequence where the union chief is seen being asked by the film crew to repeat a famous slogan: «Factory to workers means nothing today. The factories are gone, and so are the workers.»

Final moments

Cut to an empty old workshop as a makeshift screen plays the rough cut. Grown men who gave their entire lives to the factory cry as they recount ruined marriages, ill-health and the death of scores of colleagues aged 50-55 over the preceding ten years. The film had started with a suicide, but there was another – a lawyer who threw herself from the eighth floor of a building, we are told.

It is an emotional scene and one where the collective tragedy is most evident.

But it is those unexpected closing scenes of workers re-enacting the movements that melded man and machine for long as classical music plays over the balletic scenes that stay in the mind and rescues What’s to be done? from the borderline mediocrity of its first hour.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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