Misère au Borinage: Militant Documentary

The movie revolves around the massive strikes of 1932 in the French-speaking part of Belgium. It was a response to the increasing number of job accidents in which many miners had died. 

© Storck, Henri. Ivens, Yoris. Misère au Borinage. 1934

Although it was a silent film, the two directors made miners’ voices of sufferance and poverty heard by the rest of the world. It was the period of the great depression where the working class was fully exploited. It is said that “A picture worths a thousand words”, Ivens and Storck showed thousands of meaningful and shocking pictures in that documentary. The film started with mine workers protesting in the street humiliated by armed guards. The scene portrayed the brutality of police intervention using tear gas, injuring and killing some protesters. Ivens and Storck wanted to get the full experience while documenting the ugly reality of the coal miners.

Both directors clearly picked the communists’ side in rejecting the capitalist system, especially with the last scene of people protesting and holding Karl Marx’ portrait.  However, they had to stage some of scenes since the presence of the camera influenced people’s attitudes. Therefore, they triggered the emotional side in some scenes by filming more children and selecting particular scenes that stimulated feelings. Furthermore, directors sometimes stage scenes simply because of lighting preferences; Because it establishes a specific mood or a general atmosphere in a particular situation. 

Some nights we slept in miners’ houses that were already packed. We saw and experienced things, compared to which the barracks in Magnitogorsk seemed luxurious. But deprivation and misery began to form a part of our lives as much as that of the miners. we were not strangers.

Ivens and Storck

Because the documentary was filmed without sound, the directors made use of captions and sometimes demonstrators’ posters (e.g the poster about women’s say in the issue of capitalism), and writings on the walls (e.g GRÈVE). The experience of watching the documentary with captions along the way gave viewers the impression that they were part of the documentary. The experience was like they were listening to themselves reading the texts while the scenes were playing. There is an ambiguity between documentary and fiction in Joris Ivens’ and Henri Storck’s “Misère au Borinage” because it portrays a traumatic reality. It is an “in your face” kind of films; it is too cruel to be true.      

© Storck, Henri. Ivens, Yoris Misère au Borinage. 1934

The film has become a classic because it tackled the atrocities and traumatic results of capitalism at its pick. The huge gap between social classes and the contradictions are made clear throughout the film. First, miners and their families who were evicted from their house that will remain empty afterward. Second, miners’ inability to warm their places while the coal piled up near their workplace in huge quantities. 

As a final note, the most striking scene in the documentary was the one of the coal miner who was covered with carbon and was almost naked with no minimum protection. Not only it was a violation of the universal working conditions but it was a disgrace on the foreheads of whoever was responsible for such act. 

Author: Imad Baazizi

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