The Canadian documentary “Shipbreakers” from 2004 is, to start with, one of the most enthralling and moving films connected to the marine industry I have ever watched. Although 18 years old already, this work is not dated at all. Gripping from the first scene until the very last, it is a contemporary document, a cinematic masterpiece and a thought provoking, gripping, shattering and fascinating film to watch: Welcome to Alang, India, where you either accept a daily wage of 60 Cents or … death.
Director Michael Kot masterfully arranged a densely packed 73 minute documentary, written and narrated my Shalley Saywell about one of the few big shipbreaking yards of the world. Next to similar sites in Turkey, Bangladesh and the far East, Alang Beach in India is the blueprint of the cynical system we call “capitalism”, which, in fact, is the brutal reality of a large majority paying the price for the prosperity of a few.
Where the big ships go to die
Alang Beach used to be a pristine unknown location in the Indian state of Gujarat. A 10 kilometer strip of a sandy beach that slowly but gradually raised from sea level. The tidal conditions make it the perfect location to safely beach even the biggest freighters, cruise liners, super tankers and oil rigs for breaking them up. This is where the world´s fleets of decommissioned commercial vessels go to die.
Where there are no safety regulations for the workforce, no unions, no social security net nor any medical precautions are to be met, no environmental laws enforced, it is the right place to welcome the old and rusty behemoths, oil tankers, hazardous freight carriers or just asbestos-contaminated derelicts to be sold for scrap metal. But why Alang?
First World greed and Third World labour
The documentary tries – and succeeds brilliantly! – to show the different layers and perspectives. Mittu, a young boy turning man, tells his story: Coming from a far away village, his family lives in utter poverty. Even 50 rupees pay a day, less than 1 Euro or just more than half a Dollar, helps to keep him fed and his family alive. In exchange, thousands of cheap poor desperate Indians like him work with their bare hands to take down the huge ships, piece by piece.
For India, for Gujarat and for a whole downstream of business, starting with metal works, steel mills, re-sellers of all the used parts a ship brings, thousands and thousands of people more are dependent on the shipbreaking business. With nearly one dead worker per day, this is a meat grinder. Soulless? Not at all: Michael Kot manages to show a world that is full of Indian mystery, a brotherhood of exceptionally skilled metal cutters and a proud industry that is well aware of what they are doing there. “Somebody must eventually do this job”, as one shipyard owners says.
Brutal as the system is, we learn of Senior Metal Cutters who are at the top of the scallywag workforce, self-tought and acrobatically climbing inside the huge cathedrals of steel, deciding where to melt metal to break up the ships, dancing with death every day, one cut away from being smashed by falling sheets, one step away from being falling to death, from being burned by still filled up gas-pipes or blinded by exploding sparks of molten steel. Down to the orphans, being held as slaves, no pay at all, begging for food.
Fascination, pride and utter desperation
Where else than in India, this mystical, medieval and brutal country of a billion people, still bound by an alien feudal system of castes, could an unbelievably cruel reality like this happen? Yet, there is no exaggeration, no dramatization. The makers of this documentary don’t need it: The opulent, shocking, fascinating and brutal pictures show it just perfectly. Be it the wide-angle shots of 400 meter giants being cut up by hand, broken down and carried away from hundreds of hundreds of skinny, oily and burnt people. Huge chunks of sharp thick metal scrap hauled by the poor. I don´t think that even the slaves building the ancient pyramids of Egypt had a more miserable live than these people.
The documentary is a passionate advocate for work safety, environmental precaution, labour unions, fair pay, anti-child-labour and much, much more. Achievements we in the so called “First World” take for granted, don´t waste a single thought in our daily lives to. This army of the poor don´t even have shoes or breathing masks: “Work upwind”, as one “doctor” emphasizes to his fellows, commenting on the acrid air full of toxic fumes. It is absolutely unbelievable that those are the daily live conditions, a system so brutal yet so fragile, so important, so inevitable.
I´ve watched this documentary a handful of times on YouTube and it never ceases to impress me. Be it the dramaturgy, a masterly arranged story par excellence, be it the wonderfully heart wrenching choice of music, original sounds and the sparse, accentuated use of voice-overs. Th story ark is all-encompassing, trying to show all angles, trying to show the vastness and lastly the desperate situation of it all: “If we don´t do it, other will happily take our place.”
No way out
It’s the last chapter of a system that is designed to work that way. Cheap ships bult by cheap labour in Asia, run by cheap crews of Asia to transport cheap goods and cheap raw materials to the rich consumers in the west. At the end of this cycle, ever again, cheap labour has to take it apart. The precious steel will be recycled and turned into new ships, eventually, the cycle restarts. Just as the Indians believe, like Kali-Maa, the Goddess of ultimate power, life and death and change.
Just as Kali-Maa, worshipped by so many here in Alang, she takes live and rips apart the heads from the bodies of her victims, she is also the bringer of life, the warrantor of change. Kali-Maa, worshipped in the shabby sheds of the poor beings of Alang, is also painted as a mural on so many stonewalls encompassing the shipyards of Alang. This documentary leaves you speechless, unbelievably sad, fascinated, troubled and angry. It´s a must see. A must to remember.
My assessment of this documentary: 10 of 10 points
Screenshots curtesy of NFB/YouTube
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