The peripatetic Michael Glawogger has made both narratives (“Slumming”) and docs (“State of the Nation”) about his native Austria. But he’s best known for the mesmerizing “Megacities” (1998), an artful look at the underclass in Mexico City, Bombay, Moscow, and New York. Glawogger employs a similar approach in “Workingman’s Death,” which depicts manual labor at the beginning of the 21st century through coal miners in the Ukraine, ship dismantlers in Pakistan, slaughterers in a Nigerian stockyard and sulfur harvesters on an Indonesian mountain. Glawogger studied film at the S.F. Art Institute in 1980, and had no problem finding the Nob Hill Cafe for a Sunday lunch interview the day after flying in, via Paris and Cincinnati, from a career retrospective in Lisbon. The director will be on hand Thursday, May 4, at the Kabuki for the final San Francisco International Film Festival screening of his eye-popping doc, before it begins a theatrical run the next day at the Roxie Film Center.
SF360: “Workingman’s Death” opens with newsreels showing workers as heroes. I confess I expected you to return to that footage after each segment as a reminder that laborers have declined in status in the last 50 years.
Glawogger: That I would never do. Sometimes people ask me afterwards, ‘What should I think now?’ (laughs) It’s sort of strange because when I was starting as a filmmaker, everybody said, ‘Do not teach us in the cinema. The cinema is not a classroom. We are smarter than that.’ And now it’s sort of turned around. People ask, ‘Where’s the moral?’
SF360: Likewise you don’t generate emotion the way many filmmakers do, by letting us get to know and empathize with a person who lives a miserable existence.
Glawogger: I think the word ‘misery’ doesn’t apply to my film. For many [moviegoers], these are circumstances, living conditions, ways of life that they cannot imagine. But I cannot see a lot of misery there. Maybe these are contradictions that evoke emotions. If you look at Ukraine or Nigeria, places that are very strange [to the foreign eye] on the surface, that [to some] look like paintings from some kind of a hell, the people who live and work there perceive it completely differently. Nigeria looks like a painting from Hieronymous Bosch, but the people are out of a Brueghel painting, because they’re completely happy and content and have a completely different groove than you would think.
SF360: What I’m hearing is that you don’t intend to impose a meaning on your film or even to catalog a problem, but simply to bring back footage from a remote location for us to ponder.
Glawogger: That is what documentary filmmaking is about on the whole — looking at things that are not so visible to the eye. If I do a film in this city, I’ll probably show you something that your eye’s not focused [on] every day. Whenever I go to places to film, I show the people who live there something they never encountered. A [crew member] in the Ukraine, on the last day, said, ‘Thank you for showing me my country.’ The same would happen if an African filmmaker came to Austria. That’s not a problem. On the contrary, that’s something that filmmaking is, by its nature, about.
SF360: But don’t you think U.S. viewers are bound to see Ukrainian miners prying pieces of coal from a freezing, abandoned mine as a dismal way of life?
Glawogger: I’ve gotten funny reviews in America where they said, ‘This movie is going to make you kiss your white collar in gratitude’ or ‘This movie will make you enjoy your bad office coffee.’ On the other hand, it’s not that in these places life is so horrible. It’s very different and it’s tough and we have no notion how to deal with that, or how we would deal with that if we did a job like that. Which is something completely different than to live there and do the job.
SF360: There’s a sequence in the Indonesia segment where tourists hike past men lugging baskets loaded with sulfur. You don’t overplay it, but there is the sense that one person’s scenery is another’s job site.
Glawogger: Yes, it hurts a little when you see that. But it’s about contradictions — strange things on this planet that go together at a certain point. I would never have done the Indonesian part if it was just about people carrying sulfur. When the new world, symbolized by tourists and Bon Jovi, breaks into this scenery, that makes it interesting. Otherwise you would think this whole thing takes place 200 years ago. It goes back to the basics of hard manual labor-the carrier. On the surface, it’s something that jumps out of a ‘National Geographic.’ But the tension between the old and the new, the tourists watching them, that’s where the thought process begins and it gets interesting.
SF360: Here’s another contradiction you enjoy: You make beautiful films about the grittiest subjects. Why do you shoot on film and compose the most elegant shots, and disdain the shaky videocam style that says, ‘I’m here shooting on extremely rough conditions.’ Glawogger: You can approach documentary on different levels, but one thing is always true: You can only film war and a sports event without being noticed. Everything else, you are noticed as a filmmaker. You’re there, you spend time with the people, they know a camera is there. So why shake it? Why do it sloppy? You can do it perfectly, as you see the beauty, as you see the ugliness, as you see the emotion in the people.
SF360: At the beginning, you suggested that you wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions from your films. Yet I imagine that many people interpret them as parables of globalization.
Glawogger: This often comes my way. People say, ‘Is this film a comment about globalization?’ I don’t really know what that means, because it’s a term that everybody uses for his own purposes. And everybody uses it differently.
SF360: Was there a particular segment of the film that proved the most difficult?
Glawwogger: In Pakistan, it’s our ships that they take apart. ‘Our’ meaning ‘the First World.’ But there were very few tankers when I was filming, because the Iraq war started. Nothing was the same. Pakistan was a changed country, [from a place] where everybody waved at you in the streets [to] a hostile place. As a white man, you were not welcome anymore. If I was an American, I probably couldn’t have done it. I was shooting scenes with the Pashtun workers in their home territory, which is the northern territory, and at that time it was said that Osama bin Laden was there. After a few days we were kicked out, we had to flee, because they said we are not filmmakers, we are Americans trying to find out where the bombs are to be thrown. So even in the process of making this film, you see that ‘globalization’ is not only not working, [the globe is] getting more and more diverse and more and more apart.
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