We go 1,600 feet below ground and several decades back in time during The Coal Miner’s Day (Le jour du mineur), French one-man-band Gael Mocaer’s brisk and vivid portrait of a very old-school state-run concern in northwestern Ukraine. By no means as grimly dour as basic synopsis may suggest, the film works beautifully as a droll interrogation of how documentary filmmakers interact with their subjects, as well as an opportunity to glimpse working conditions in a remote and rarely-visited corner of Europe. A fine choice for discerning festivals and TV channels specializing in nonfiction fare, it could even warrant small-scale art house distribution in receptive territories.
Enduring hazardous conditions for wages of around $400 a month, the employees of the Bouzhanska mine extract coal in a manner that would be familiar to their fathers and even grandfathers, using machinery that clearly hasn’t been updated since the USSR days. Mocaer (2008’s No Popcorn On the Floor) gets right in among their work, his lenses sometimes steaming up due to the damply fetid conditions so far below the surface.
Given the cramped circumstances, it would be very difficult to even attempt the “fly on the wall” stance of pretended invisibility, which is still a standard documentary approach to such material. Mocaer, while never seen and seldom heard, instead turns his presence among these experienced comrades very much to the movie’s advantage, leaving in all kinds of jokester, mocking comments hurled in his direction by the colliers. “Don’t say rude words, he’s filming everything!” laughs one. “They don’t have any dictionary that translate our rude words,” replies another.
The men’s banter is initially employed as a protective shield against this exotic outsider. But gradually a complex picture emerges of men at once proud of their profession (a “cornerstone of Ukraine’s economic development,” as one of their bosses puts it) but also aware that their conditions fall a long way short of proper working environments in the 21st century. Things are much more sedate above ground, needless to say, where most of the staff are women, and where intriguingly different kinds of workplace dynamics come into play.
Condensing more than a year’s material into 78 minutes — the Ukrainian winter’s icy grip is poetically captured — Mocaer shows a consistently keen eye for telling detail and makes the most of what seems to be all-areas access to this intriguingly self-contained community. While inevitably more conventional than Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s much-lauded fishing-boat documentary Leviathan from last year, The Coal Miner’s Day is in its own way powerfully immersive and stands out by incorporating such extensive, amusing and informative contributions from the workers it quietly celebrates.
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition, Nov. 25)
Production companies: Eaux Vives Productions, Gael Mocaer Films
Director / Screenwriter / Director of Photography / Editor: Gael Mocaer
Producers: Gael Mocaer, Xenia Maingot
Sales: Gael Mocaer Films, Pantin, France
No MPAA rating, 78 minutes