Good Luck starts with a long sequence of an orchestra playing and making its way from a tower to a dump. They’re in the middle of nowhere, playing the most powerful music, and letting us observe their faces up close – their every line, eye movement, drop of sweat. Filmmaker Ben Russell follows them so closely, that it becomes uncomfortable for us to watch. It feels as though we’re intruding. But the whole opening scene is telling of the loneliness, detachment and abandonment of the film to follow, and it successfully prepares us for the several zoomed-in, lingering, uneasy portraits of men that are yet to come.
The documentary is split into two parts – the first in a Serbian mine and the second in an illegal Surinamese gold mine. An all male film, Good Luck studies its brave subjects as they work, interact, reflect on their job and life and just joke around and unwind. These are men that have forgotten the dreams they once had; men who have been working in the depths of the earth or the jungle for decades; men who feel uncomfortable telling their story even though it’s remarkable; men who would hate to see their sons one day do what they do. Indeed, if there is one thing that all these very different, lands apart men can agree on, is that their children will go to school, get an education and do something better, perhaps in an office, maybe even using pens.
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Coming to think of it, there is a second thing that all these men have in common, and that is that they fear nothing. Death is not something that they catch themselves thinking about, and fear has no place in their work field. If they do fear anything, that might be their wives – a common joke among men, that has been told too many times to not carry any seriousness. Bus yes, apart from fearing the wife, working in a mine can’t go alongside fear. No kind of fear would be accepted in a Serbian mine, as no kind of fear would allow a person to descend 600 meters into the earth, in a packed elevator, just to drill further into it, searching. Searching for something that will never be his. There are no rich men there.
I am claustrophobic, so watching the first part of Good Luck was a real test. It was like watching a thriller – and if I hadn’t had Ben Russell alive and in one piece presenting his film at this year’s Festival Dei Popoli, I wouldn’t have been so sure that the filmmaker and crew got out of there intact. For me, this would have been an impossible film to make – I will not even talk about how impossible working in a mine would be. Every heavy thump or explosion made me shake with fear; then I would look at the workers and how they reacted. They didn’t even flinch.
Then there is the break, and they make coffee, have a snack and a smoke, talk politics and make work jokes. They refuse to get serious or personal, and prefer to keep it laddy – until one man sinks into reflection and starts speaking truths. Then the atmosphere thickens and of course light manly jokes rush to silence him. This is not the place to stop and think. That would mark the end. The end of courage, hope and put-on oblivion. That would mark the end of this work. So let’s talk about how the only thing we fear is our wives.
Good Luck‘s first part closes with an incredible accordion piece, performed in the darkness, with a man’s hat flashlight as our only light. Ben Russell reaches his peak here – the way he frames his subject, follows his playing and allows the shadows and darkness to play their part is something to behold. Keep an eye out for this extraordinary moment – not that you could ever miss it.
Then Ben Russell moves onto his second part, which is out in the open, in the sun and heat, in the green jungle. Men here stay active, enjoy good food, play football and have their wives near – even if the idea of having them work there is not something they’d consider. This is not a place for our wives and sons; they’re better than this, is implied – although never said, as this once again would jeopardise their dedication in their line of work.
Together, these men work throughout the day, and then play chess, have dinners with the wives, sing, dance and joke about everything, What depresses the viewer, scares him and angers him in Part 1 of Good Luck, it then relaxes him and lets him into another kind of mining, just as tiring, but much less dangerous, demoralising or claustrophobic, in Part 2. The first mine feels inhuman, whereas the second shows us workers that are allowed through their work to get even closer to their human nature. But the main achievement of Ben Russell’s film – and the reason why it will stay with me – is his brave closeups. This is a film of portraits. Black-and-white, straight-up portraits, or lingering, unauthorised portraits. Either way, these men are being watched for our sake and the way they are sent across to us is powerful, remarkable and masterly.
Watch the trailer for Good Luck here: