One of the highlights of the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, which runs this Wednesday through Sunday at the Logan, is the local premiere of Good Luck, the latest documentary feature by noted avant-garde filmmaker (and former Chicagoan) Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness). Russell has carved out an interesting niche for himself over the past decade or so, blending elements of ethnographic and experimental cinema, and Good Luck falls squarely into this idiosyncratic subgenre.
The film transpires in two parts, each running approximately 70 minutes. The first concerns a state-run copper mine in the Serbian community of Bor; the second looks at an illegal gold mining operation in the Brokopondo district of Suriname. Russell explains in his director's notes that his aim with this structure was "to better understand the bonds that men share," and he emphasizes the similarities between the two groups of miners by developing similar motifs across both halves of the film. Each section of Good Luck features a musical performance, conversations about fear, and long takes of men operating specialized machinery. In fact the two sections are so similar in form that you may experience deja vu in the second half. But this is precisely the point of Good Luck—the two parts don’t just complement each other but combine to form an epic portrait of labor in the globalized era.
Russell definitely has a perverse streak. Devoid of narration or talking-head interviews, Good Luck provides no explanation of how the mining operations came to be, nor does it address the economic histories of the communities under consideration. Russell doesn't even identify the functions of the machines to which he devotes so much screen time. As a result of these elisions, the film feels less like a documentary than like a work of abstract expressionism, yet much beauty can be found in Russell's approach. The scenes of work are mesmerizing, in part, because Russell doesn't reveal its purpose. Presented without context, these passages encourage viewers to invent their own explanations for the work or simply go with the flow and appreciate the imagery as the stuff of found science fiction.
The settings of Good Luck invite such comparisons. The Serbian copper mine, located 400 meters below the earth’s surface and illuminated by minimal lighting sources, evokes a lunar landscape. In contrast, the Surinamese operation sometimes resembles a fictitious planet. The men here often add liquid mercury to dirt in their search for gold, and the silver water and earth suggest the resources of an alien world. Russell's long takes heighten this alienating effect; whereas other filmmakers might employ such takes to bring strange environments into focus, Russell makes objects seem stranger the longer he observes them. This strategy recalls the films of Andy Warhol, whom Russell also invokes in the silent, extended close-ups of workers that punctuate the action.
These close-ups serve as reminders of the workers' humanity, which one tends to forget about when considering labor on a grand scale. Though Russell renders the men's work abstract, he brings a certain lucidity to his portraits of the men themselves. The most cogent passages of Good Luck show the miners during their downtime, relaxing, smoking, and shooting the shit. These human portraits almost take on a political dimension during the first half, when one of the Serbian miners, asked what he fears most, says he's afraid that the current Prime Minister will get re-elected. The miner quickly backpedals, saying he doesn’t want to discuss politics on camera, yet Russell succeeds in documenting his anxiety about the future of his job, which one might encounter among laborers anywhere in the world.
In contrast, Russell emphasizes the optimism of his Surinamese subjects. Good Luck concludes with a long, celebratory song performed by some of the gold miners about the abundance of gold in their region. Even though one of these miners has complained earlier in the film that he can go entire days without finding gold, the song conveys an enduring hope for success. The number also speaks to the spirit of bonhomie that animates these workers, which Russell spotlights later when groups of men work together to start a giant, gas-powered water pump. Most importantly, the men's song parallels the funeral dirge that a Serbian marching band performs at the beginning of Good Luck, introducing the theme of despair that runs through the first half of the film. Russell's conclusion suggests that despair and optimism are opposite sides of the same coin in the world of labor, where the forces that impel people to work can lie beyond their understanding. v
Check back later this week for more coverage of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, running Wednesday, June 6, through Sunday, June 10.