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18 April, 2012  ▪  Lesia Kulchytska

Life Is Different There…

Documentaries about Donbas coalminers: social antagonism instead of regional patriotism

After contributing to the victory of Donetsk-based oligarchs, “the image of a coal miner” seems to have “struck back”. The horrible condition of workers in the local coal mines becomes increasingly known to the public and the shameful other side of the regional capital has been revealed. The abyss between the idealised and real Donbas has been vividly captured in documentaries shot by foreign filmmakers over the past several years. The social contrasts that cannot be concealed behind bombastic, Soviet-style slogans about “the pride and contribution” of the Donbas lie exposed in these films. But this straightforward presentation of contemporary reality in the current ruling elite's home region is evidently rubbing someone the wrong way. At least, this is suggested by the situation around the film Shakhta №8 (Pit No. 8) – its screening was cancelled under the lame pretext that smells of political motivation.

A REGION OF STARK CONTRASTS

The film The Other Chelsea. A Story from Donetsk contrasts the multi-million dollar project to build the “pearl of the region”, the Donbas Arena stadium, and Shakhtar Donetsk’s victories in the UEFA cup, with the lives of local football fans: Kolia Levchenko, a representative of the local business elite and regional authorities, and Sasha, a worker at the Putylivska coal mine which is dangerously unsafe. Using the status of “foreign guests” to his advantage, German director Jakob Preuss obtains access to the lives and hearts of his characters who, prompted by local patriotism, share their life achievements with him. Without holding anything back, Levchenko shows off his status symbols: a luxurious apartment, an equally plush office and other things that “a successful businessman and politician” should have. He is so much in love with his own glossy image that he forgets that, under Ukrainian legislation, his status of a businessman scandalously conflicts with his official position. In contrast, Sasha the coal miner can only surprise the German guest with his “heroic willingness” to go down into a semi-ruined mine in which his son died in an accident.

To both characters, Shakhtar’s victories mean much more than simply sports entertainment. They represent a struggle for “the pride of the region”. To Sasha, this is primarily moral compensation, a symbolic reward for all his personal losses and disappointments in life. In contrast, to the young and promising Party of Regions politician Levchenko, who dreams of becoming an MP, it means a strategically important achievement in an election campaign and a guarantee that the electorate, proud of “a common victory”, will support the Donetsk political elite.

By exposing the deceitful nature of regional patriotism, which is in fact used by the local elites to legalise their exploitation of the local population, Preuss offers a “sober materialistic view” to his Ukrainian audience. Indeed, he says, oligarchy is an inevitable stage on the way to developed capitalism in most post-Soviet states, but instead of feeding his countrymen with pictures of “Donbas grandeur” and investing millions in a football club and a luxurious stadium, local hero Rinat Akhmetov should spend at least part of his wealth to secure normal working conditions in coal mines.

STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL

Marianna Kaat dealt an even more devastating blow to Donbas' image. This region is presented in her film, Pit No. 8 (Full movie can be watched here), as rich in a cheap and defenceless workforce rather than resources. The film exposes how children are exploited in illegal pits. The protagonist is Yura, a teenager in the dying coal mining settlement of Snizhne. He was deprived of any means of existence and has been forced to work in the pit since an early age to feed himself and his family: two sisters, an alcoholic mother and a jobless father-in-law.

The realities depicted are outrageous – what can be worse than exploiting children? – but the film is at the same time filled with a certain optimism. The responsible and industrious teenager gives hope that he will eventually achieve success in life. In the finale, Yura and his friend ride a motorcycle they bought with their own money into what is audience hopes is a bright future. Left to his own devices since childhood, Yura has already matured and is now a strong-willed man. He will certainly “make it” – at least this is the conclusion suggested by the director.

Nevertheless, this kind of optimism is no more than the effect of “the unknown future” hinted in the film’s finale. Childhood years are always filled with hopes and expectations. In reality, the life shown in the film is much more alarming than that in The Other Chelsea. Sasha can at least theoretically complain to the authorities about unsafe work conditions, while workers in illegal pits are by definition deprived of this chance – they simply do not exist in the legal field. In the struggle for survival, illegal workers are forced to renounce their basic human rights in exchange for miserable wages, thus becoming a silent tool for enriching their more successful countrymen who are supported by the authorities.

Bravely exposing social injustice, both films unfortunately fail to offer anything in return except expectations. Sasha is left to hope that once the power-wielding oligarchs accumulate enough capital with his help, they will finally care enough to secure normal working conditions. Yura can only hope that after exerting inhuman effort, he will finally manage to go somewhere where he will have “a different life”.

THE IMAGE OF A VICTIM

The grim truth lurking behind this veil of feeble hope is that these people, despite their expectations, are desperate. A character in Adam i Yeva (zhyttia shakhtariv Donbasu) [Adam and Eve (The Life of Donbas Coalminers)] was shockingly blunt: “There have to be slaves anyway. True capitalism will never grow without slaves.” From this viewpoint, the hope of “true capitalism” does not leave any other options than heroically accepting one’s own “historically dictated” condition of a slave. That is why waiting is the most dangerous trap, and the only way to break out of it is readiness to take action. A timely reminder of this opportunity came with the screening of Perestroika From Below, a Daniel Walkowitz and Barbara Abrash film documenting the coal miner movement in Donbas in 1989-1991. Against the backdrop of a general feeling of hopelessness, this film is optimistic as it portrays coal miners not as traditional victims of injustice but as a self-organised community, uncompromising in the fight for its rights and not waiting for the mercy of bosses.


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