JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Shipbreakers (Director: Michael Kot) - July 10, 2004


4 4
75 min.

Vessels of mass destruction

If Western leaders are really serious about finding weapons of mass destruction, they should shift their gaze and conscience to the beaches of Alang, India. There, 40,000 few-dollars-a-day “soldiers” battle the environmental “dirty bombs”—the discarded ships of companies that have sold them for scrap rather than safely dispose of their own industrial waste. If the PCBs or asbestos of these ‘70s relics don’t shorten the miserable lives of the untrained, ill-equipped workers by decades, then a falling panel or sudden explosion from an uncleared gas line is sure to maim or kill with a frequency that would have Saddam Hussein salivating.

Opened in 1983 when Western labour costs were becoming prohibitive, this sudden Iron Age (“Kali Yug,” which also means Dark Age) has a chilling motto: “A ship a day a death a day.”

In Shipbreakers, Michael Kot has delivered a vivid and stinging visual indictment of this environmental and social disaster that draws thousands of the region’s poorest into a workplace where “The ship dies so we can survive.” Much of the point of view comes from Mittu, a slight-of-frame young man who abandons his family and any chance for an education to find work. An older brother has already died doing the same job. Mittu also takes care of his near-blind uncle, but remains philosophical about his choice: “[Each] ship will feed at least 500 people as it dies.” Later he offers some regret, “I feel guilty working, not studying. I don’t know what happened to me,” but, finally, hopeful: “I’d love to travel and see the world. I’d love to sail away …”

The rest-of-the-world has noticed this deadly sore on the Arabian Sea, where the men shoulder scraps of iron like an honour guard carrying a coffin, but contents itself with passing the U.N. Basel Convention banning shipments of hazardous waste, which has had the same success as its 1948 Convention on genocide—think Darfur in slow motion.

For their part, the Indian government and managers of the company are in no hurry to follow any of their own statutes because “If India enforces its own laws the others [third-world countries] will take the business away.”

Not surprisingly, the workers spend much time in the Hindu Shrine of Kali Maa, praying to the Mother of the World for survival. But like the tubs of iron that are pulled apart by hand, this Goddess is both a man-eating destroyer and a giver of life. One of the master cutters admits to being afraid of the ships when he first arrived, but like his colleagues, doesn’t worry about dying as the money he earns will give him “a chance for a better life. It’s all in God’s hands.”

Safety in the workplace is laughable, but not funny. The men are issued hard hats (looking like toys compared with the ten-storey high hulks that menacingly loom over them from a different angle every day), use scarves for air masks and have no harnesses whether crawling along metres-tall chains or cutting through decks, which, if they fall the wrong way, could crush themselves or their colleagues. The once-a-week doctor in the local Red Cross clinic admits that the pollution in the air is “like smoking 10-15 packs of cigarettes a day,” so advises his patients to stand “up wind” while working.

Ken Myhr’s music is discreet and compelling. The opening drums and pulse underscore the danger effectively, but the seamless merge from the indigenous instruments in the shrine to Ernie Tollar’s Pan-like flute is an exceptional metaphor for the ability of twenty-first century technology to take anything from the third world and shape it to its own advantage.

Director of photography Derek Rogers and his capable editors have expertly crafted the sequences in a manner that lets their condemnation come through without resorting to sensationalism. However, Ted Biggs’ tone in the narration is too understated, allowing those who need to see this production then make the necessary changes let themselves off the hook too quickly.

There is a huge social disaster as well. We learn that the men (and women, who, naturally, are paid less) suffer from a “scarcity of love, caring and money,” but that’s in direct proportion to those on both sides of the planet who are stricken with an over-abundance of greed, power and denial. JWR

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Director - Michael Kot
Music - Ken Myhr
Director of Photography - Derek Rogers
Editor - Deborah Palloway
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
National Film Board of Canada
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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Reader's Forum
July 20, 2018

Excellent review, you summed up a compelling film that the World should view. I would love to be able to buy the musical score or some of the music, haunting and brilliant the whole production is a gem, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

George C., Glasgow, Scotland