Film

Ben Russell’s “Good Luck” Plunges Viewers Into the Labor of Miners on Two Hemispheres

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The lauded experimental, ethnographic, and trance-state filmmaker Ben Russell suggests, in the opening moments of Good Luck, that with this film, a low-key epic, he intends not just to circumnavigate the globe but to split it. Over a shot of Suriname jungle, as insects hiss and grind on the soundtrack, Russell superimposes a simple black circle with a line bifurcating its equator. The 143 minutes that follow don’t quite lay bare the full sphere or give us reason to reconsider our place on it, but Good Luck often proves enthralling nonetheless as Russell surveys workers standing on opposite hemispheres of our Earth and hauling to the surface the treasure within it.

The film, like that circle, is split through the middle, the first half following the men who work in a Serbian copper mine deep into the Earth — a world away from Suriname. Russell plunges us with them, filming the descent, the machinery that hisses/grinds much louder than those insects, the way that the blackness presses in patches of stone and metal lit by the flashlights and headlamps. We observe the men arriving, the camera trailing behind them for long, uninterrupted takes; down below, we see them drilling, the tunnels that are the black of the grave except for what the miners illuminate themselves, where they point their heads, casting a curiously soothing aquamarine over the rockscapes. During breaks, Russell will swing a light toward individual workers and ask what it is that they fear. Some demur, saying, “Nothing,” or joke-answering, “Fear.” Some speak for each other: “He’s afraid they’ll arrest his brother.” The scenes of bodies at labor also get interspersed with faces in intimate portrait, the miners posing, one at a time, as Russell shoots in 16mm. As we regard them, they seem to contend with that fact of that regarding, possibly wondering what we’re getting out of it. Some look bluntly into the camera; some smoke; some glance elsewhere, occasionally; one giggles. It’s hard, while watching, not to feel seen yourself. What would they make of your visage? What does it mean that you have time to look at them while they’re stuck doing this horrifying work and shrugging off the director’s philosophical inquiry?

Then, halfway through the film, Russell takes us above ground, on the globe’s other side, back to the jungles of Suriname. Here he examines a second mine, one that scrapes the Earth for gold rather than penetrate it deeply for copper. The techniques of mining, here, are quite different, but Russell’s own are not. Again, a Steadicam trails workers as they enter those fraught industrialized spaces where surface dwellers can get at the Earth’s surfaces. Again, we witness bodies in toil, by screaming machines, the workers’ long-practiced comfort in such extreme situations likely at odds with viewers’ own nerves. Again, we see the workers — this time joined by women — chatting at breaks, performing music, discussing their fears. These miners are more forthcoming than the Serbians, discussing the jungle in terms that we could call the mytho-practical. One man explains, “When you go to a new place in the jungle, the jungle will ask you for something. You have to pay it.” Paying it involves a sacrifice, usually of something sweet, and the digging of a hole, but you must not kill a snake or worm in the process: “If blood is spilled,” he warns, “the jungle will ask for more.”

Another man says, “If you shit without paying attention, a vampire bat will bite you.”

The halved-Earth structure, I fear, doesn’t reveal much to me beyond the filmmaker’s need for a structure. Still, Russell’s formalism emphasizes correspondences and differences between the lot of the workers in Suriname and Serbia. The Suriname mine is run by a collective rather than a company, and the workers have a more direct interest in any day’s haul; the lunar cool of the Serbian mine contrasts with the lush jungle and muddy wastes in which the Suriname workers labor. As often in Russell’s films, Good Luck splits the interest between observer and observed, between the lives that Russell and crew capture in their painstaking long takes and the very process of composing and shooting those takes. The tension between those impulses — to document life and to craft art — seems to me fruitful, and the correspondences and differences between the two mines and their miners will interest viewers curious about such hard work. Especially fascinating: the ad hoc community formed between the miners — their jokes, their trust in each other, their games of football (in Suriname), and their subterranean accordion performances (in Serbia).

Good Luck
Directed by Ben Russell
Opens April 6, Anthology Film Archives

 

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