Friday, July 8, 2016

Fireflies in the Abyss

Barbara Kopple’s pulsating 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, begins with a cry of “Fire in the hole!” Then, to the accompaniment of Merle Travis’ "Dark As A Dungeon", it descends to where “the rain never falls and the sun never shines”. Miners crawl through narrow tunnels, hack at the walls with hammers and pickaxes, operate machinery, grab a bite to eat. It’s a rare up-close look at one of the least glamorous, most dangerous jobs in existence.

Chandrasekhar Reddy’s Fireflies In The Abyss, which looks at the hardscrabble lives of a group of Nepalese miners in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, has a similar scene, only more terrifying. For one, these are narrow, unstable, unmonitored “rat hole mines”, which the Meghalaya government banned in 2014, after the film was shot. There’s no music, so you hear every scrape, every intake of dust-filled air. The miner in question is alone. He has no helmet. Most alarmingly, unlike the grown men of Kopple’s film, he’s a young boy.

Suraj is the heartbreaking centre of Reddy’s film. Only 11 years old, he supports his alcoholic father, having quit school to work in the mines. He has one bad eye and more good cheer than one might think possible, but when he goes underground, it’s difficult to breathe out of concern for him. Not that his life above ground is any cheerier. Early on in the film, he walks barefoot through a muddy swamp, reaching down into receptacles every once in a while. After a few attempts, he finds what he’s been looking for and returns to firmer ground, grinning. He’s just caught a very small fish.

Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to others in the camp. There’s Suraj, formerly a woodcutter, bar singer and part-time actor, and more recently—as he bitterly confesses—a cuckold (his wife ran off with a labourer; he doesn’t know whether he can face her again without killing her or himself). There are Suraj’s sister and brother-in-law, who run the small kitchen that provides the immigrant miners a vital sense of community. There’s the old man who counts the carts of coal; the mine manager who tells the workers they won’t make more money anywhere else. Most fascinating of all is Nishant, a soft-spoken, hip-looking young man. He’s an enthusiastic photographer—his stills, many of them strikingly composed, are scattered through the film.

Reddy shot the film over six months in 2012. He returns to check on the characters a year later, which allows certain story arcs—such as Suraj’s attempts to return to school, or his brother-in-law’s desire to leave and return to Nepal—to play themselves out. The overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. Besides the local lottery, there’s little these people have to look forward to. Most of them work in the mines all day, drink and then sleep. The dreariness of their life is echoed by the unadorned cinematography (by Reddy, working without a crew). The only glimpse of beauty is the old Hindi film songs that play on the radio, a more ironically apt soundtrack than the jaunty one with sax, flute and guitar, composed for the film.

Fireflies In The Abyss concerns itself with its subjects’ lives, leaving the viewer to ponder larger issues such as child labour and the curious absence of miner unions (the fact that they’re Nepalese might make them political pariahs even if there were worker organizations). It’s a sympathetic but sobering work, made without flash or sentiment. It struck me, long after I had finished watching it, that the fireflies of the title could refer to the faint glimmer of hope most of these miners have of making enough money to be able to quit the trade. Yet, for the most part, the film gazes into the abyss.

This review appeared in Mint.

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