The World Is Working: Michael Glawogger’s Trilogy on Poverty and Labor

Michael Glawogger Essay - Workingman's Death Documentary

Michael Glawogger’s associations and style will inevitably place him, rightly or wrongly, with the Austrian brand of films in which desolation is refracted through a deceptively humanistic lens. Lumping these filmmakers together could be a mistake; their similarities could be illusions created unconsciously in the viewer’s mind from the knowledge of the filmmakers’ shared nationality. But Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Markus Schleinzer, Veronika Franz and others do indeed make films which are hard to watch not necessarily because of the violence but because of the hyper-realistic way they film death, fear or sex. Michael Glawogger’s hybrid films (which lean more towards docufiction) show horrible, depressing things being done to and by people. What is difficult to watch, however, is the sometimes bare misery of the subjects’ lives.

But Glawogger respected his subjects, and was captivated by them, in a way that is unique to the kind of films which purposefully, for whatever reasons, seek to shock comfortable audiences. Dennis Lim, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a friend of Glawogger, has used the less snappy though proper “globe-trotting labor trilogy” to describe his friend’s films about poverty and work, rather than the hackneyed “Globalization Trilogy” used by some critics and writers. Starting with Megacities in 1998, the trilogy gradually tightens its thematic focus through Workingman’s Death (2005) and, finally, to Whores’ Glory in 2011. 

The term globalization unfortunately follows the director around film criticism without much appreciation of its meaning within each production. These films are not about globalization, but people isolated from the world within small communities, carrying out work that can be deadly, exploitative and unfulfilling. There are subjects in the trilogy who work on a global production line or live in areas where more dominant cultural imports have permeated. But many more of them are working for themselves, or local businesses, and selling to their communities. Either way, they are in lines of work specific to their environment. The “globalization” label does a disservice to the importance of individuals in Glawogger’s globe-trotting labor trilogy.

Michael Glawogger Essay - Megacities Documentary

Michael Glawogger traveled the world and found that people from New York to Bangladesh all share an ambition to earn a living by whatever means. Megacities shows the numerous ways in which people around the world live and work; Workingman’s Death focuses broadly on manual labor in the traditional sense in five countries; Whores’ Glory shows the stark connection between poverty and prostitution in Mexico, Bangladesh and Thailand. Glawogger’s subjects are spared an artist’s judgement but filmed with an artist’s sense of aesthetics, photographed with a clarity about their unique circumstances. By taking viewers across multiple continents, one can see both the profound similarities and superficial differences between these diverse groups of people. This revelation can be comforting — as when friends, family or religion provide people with an emotional security wherever they are — or it can function as a somber fact about the world we’ve created.

These people sometimes hold two ideas in their heads at once: that their work is necessary but must be suffered, at times allowing them to garner a sense of pride while also feeling the weight of dejection. In Megacities, Akhbar Ali’s job is to sift dyestuffs of all different vibrant colors from one bag to another. The Michael Glawogger documentary begins in Bombay, and the images of this lean man as he changes color (because of his work) from scene to scene are of a quality common to the filmmaker’s work — static shots that frame Ali and his workplace as if he is praying with his labor. But Ali has barely any pride in his work. Sitting atop a building with Bombay at his back, he says, “I have no choice, so I work here. I’m worn out… I’m unhappy.” In another part of the city, Shankar is a film exhibitionist who wheels his bioscope around poor neighborhoods to entertain the young children. In two sentences, Shankar expresses this conflict between job satisfaction and necessity: “I make kids happy. I’m trying to get on in life.”

The same condition is present throughout Workingman’s Death, Michael Glawogger’s contribution to cinema’s fascination with manual labor. The director himself has his own filmic addiction: the slaughtering of animals in crude slaughterhouses, as seen in drawn-out sequences in both Megacities and Workingman’s Death. The third section of the latter is filmed at an open-air market in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Glawogger shows the knife up-close and the blood as it drains from the animals’ necks. But for such a seemingly dire place, the director speaks to people who are just happy to have work, especially work they are good at. One man, who washes the goats after they’ve been killed, says, “I thank God for my skills… I believe this job makes me special.”

Michael Glawogger Essay - Workingman's Death Documentary

For the group of coal miners at the beginning of Workingman’s Death, who say they work independently of the big Ukrainian companies, their job is even more frightening, even if their days are unaccompanied by the screams of dying animals. One of the miners says that if the ceiling of their crawlspace collapsed by just 10 centimeters then they would be crushed to death. Michael Glawogger and his crew join the miners in the cave, which not only provides jaw-dropping scenes but also confirms that the director lived with his subjects, rather than keeping a distance from the people who are core to his art. “I’m doing this to survive, no more, no less,” says one miner, who lets the camera into his home. By his side is his wife, who is part of a female troop of coal miners, and they say they are both happy, at least, to have each other.

In Ukraine, Michael Glawogger found two people who allowed their gender to divide the housework but not the work they do to survive. Nonetheless, gender divides the trilogy into the different forms of work that men and women find themselves in. Whores’ Glory is a film predominantly about women which honors another duality: prostitution as a profession that demands both exceptional strength of mind and submission to the madams and pimps. The gender dynamic between the women and the johns is less consistent: sometimes the men are “brutal,” the women say, and sometimes they are like children. There is no doubt that during some of these transactions the women hold the power, regardless of the circumstances which brought them here. Glawogger also interviewed some of the johns, and the reasons they pay for sex range from casual recreation to emotional necessity. If the men who pay to have sex with children in the City of Joy brothel in Faridpur, Bangladesh are interviewed, then the ages of the girls are not discussed.

The terms “sex work” or “prostitution,” as all-encompassing labels, inevitably ignore how the specifics of the job vary wildly according to the country and area in which the work is taking place. “Sex work” is too broad to define the jobs women do to endure poverty or even live comfortably, the latter of which is the case for some of the Thai women interviewed. The working conditions in each brothel, beyond the work itself, are also incomparable. The Fish Tank in Thailand is more like a casino, where the men drink and look through a glass wall into a room where all the women sit and wait to be picked. In Faridpur, the poverty is unambiguous: the women and girls work where they sleep, in rooms packed together within long, narrow hallways of cracked concrete walls. In the sex district in Mexico, called The Zone, the women work out of a motel and the johns park their cars in front of their doors.

Michael Glawogger Essay - Whores' Glory Documentary

“The outside world pushes us out of the way to make room,” admits one of the madams in Faridpur, while one of the “girls” says, “Men don’t realize how we sacrifice our sense of shame for money.” Prostitution is not like any other job, except that people can be trapped by it, at the same time trying to find a way to take pride in being good at something which pays. In some developed countries, campaigns for reasonable labor laws and government-backed safety measures are driving the public and private sectors to make meaningful decisions, but the women in Whores’ Glory do not have that privilege or level of representation. “Most of these places are controlled by some kind of mafia,” said Glawogger in an interview with MUBI in 2012. As the film shows, many of these women and girls are sold or forced into prostitution.

When discussing the filming of Whores’ Glory with MUBI, Michael Glawogger stated that the locations themselves were an advantage because “it’s a community, and a community has a life.” The documentarian’s productions are photographed with the peculiar beauty that cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler also brings to much of Ulrich Seidl’s work. Tracking shots in particular are used ingeniously in all three films, whether crawling through the bustling hallways of the City of Joy, following the sulphur carriers (Workingman’s Death) up and down the hills of Ijen, Indonesia or when trying to keep up with the fast walking and talking Mexican salesmen in Megacities. Wherever they were, Glawogger was able to inject into his films the excitement he must’ve craved from traveling disparate parts of the world. 

In this vein, the Michael Glawogger trilogy can be seen as a continuation of the silent travelogue films that were being made by amateur filmmakers (usually people from the colonial states) a hundred years ago. The BFI National Archive, some of which is free through the BFI Player, stores countless amateur films from the first few decades of the 20th century. They are of varying artistic quality, but China Today (1936) or Kashgar: 2 (1927), for example, are early models of Glawogger’s films. There is the same hunger for a chance to study different cultures and an eagerness to be surprised by what they find. Manual labor has also captivated documentary filmmakers for decades. The hypnotic movements of bodies and hands engaged in real work can be traced through different countries and through the different stages of film technology and documentary styles: Man of Aran (1934), Night Mail (1936), ‎Solfatara (1955), Meat (1976), The Gleaners and I (2000) and Bitter Money (2016).

Michael Glawogger Essay - Megacities Documentary

“Some people have the twisted notion that the exchange of money alters the truth. Nothing is more wrong than that. Exchange of money or gifts is an act that determines the way people deal with each other in situations of work.”

Michael Glawogger was proud to pay his subjects, all the while being honest about the benefits to his films that these kinds of working relationships will have. In an interview with Scott MacDonald, a film scholar and writer, the director said plainly, “They open up to me.” Through the labor trilogy, it’s possible to see the trust Glawogger must have earned from people who allowed the most personal of details to be made public. In interviews, he was always confident about his methods and with the relationships he made. One way he was able to get the women in Whores’ Glory to trust him was to go into detail about the stylistic aspects of his film (distinguishing himself from typical journalists or filmmakers), promising them there would be no voiceovers and that their own words would be given primacy. He also promised that he would return on a “roundtrip” to show all the women the finished film, which he did. The openness his subjects grant him is a result of his professionalism and respect.

But also consider the fact that, by his own admission, Michael Glawogger would buy drugs for Michael, a full-time addict in Megacities, when called up at 3 a.m. Michael is a New York City street hustler to whom Glawogger gained intimate access. A scene of Michael shooting-up heroin in a moving car, a close-up of his face as it hits, is haunting and slick. “If you’re willing to do that [buy them drugs],” Glawogger said, “you get the scene.” Even if Glawogger had given Michael the money instead, which we know he would’ve done, the filmmaker knew that Michael would’ve just bought the heroin himself. There is logic to Glawogger’s thinking, but it’s ethically questionable. Then there is the ever-present issue of intervention. In Workingman’s Death, there is a small section where the film follows a group of young men and boys in Moscow. They drink on the street and giddily ask passing Muscovites for money. Some look about 14 or 15. What is Glawogger’s duty to these children, if any, especially when they provide him with scenes for his film? What could he do even if he wanted to do something?

More extreme examples of this dilemma are constant throughout Whores’ Glory, and none more depressing than when a girl called Ruma, who looks 13, is being sold to the City of Joy in Bangladesh. Glawogger and his camera are in the room as the madam pokes at Ruma and tells her she must work at the brothel for one year minimum. When the madam asks the girl how long she has been “working,” Ruma says, “I’ve been working the streets six years.” Again, I cannot think of what Glawogger and his crew could’ve actually done in this case of a child being sold into prostitution. What would they have done about all the other children working there? Regardless, the idea of Glawogger and his crew filming the scene for a movie is difficult to comprehend. The sorrow on the girl’s face is as frightening as any collapsing cave.

A cheap criticism of Michael Glawogger’s labor trilogy would be that its visual elegance, or the style in general, is too considered or florid. Mark Jenkins, in his review of Whore’s Glory for NPR, believes that adding “hip art-rock music by PJ Harvey and CocoRosie… is to flirt with glamorization.” Incidentally, the women in The Zone in Mexico, according to Glawogger, loved the music in the film. Glawogger himself, as quoted by Dennis Lim, had his own response to these forms of criticism: “I have the feeling that for a lot of people a documentary looks more truthful when it’s filmed like shit.” Wolfgang Thaler, the cinematographer for all three films of the trilogy, is a distinctive visual artist. That Glawogger and Thaler’s ideas were so aligned should be celebrated, rather than being dragged into banal discussions about whether “truth” and film can ever truly coexist.

Michael Glawogger Essay - Whores' Glory Documentary

“We are born into suffering, because in this country nothing is as it should be. So everyone here does his job patiently. And if God in his infinite mercy should bestow us with success, so be it.”

This is said by one of the men working in the open-air market in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, but it could brush the lips of any of the people in Michael Glawogger’s films. The director is particularly sensitive to the importance of religion when it comes to the women in Whores’ Glory or the dancer in Megacities. With regards to the latter, Glawogger filmed Mariana Parra González in what looks like a repurposed theatre. A picture of the Virgin Mary looks down at her as González descends the stairs towards the stage. The men treat the dancer as if she is herself a god, being worshipped and defiled as they grab her vagina and look up at her in awe. The filmmakers accentuate this strange, contradictory treatment with slow motion and by experimenting with light. It’s remarkable how Glawogger and his crew were able to alter the reality of a scene while emphasizing the base humanity of their subjects’ behavior.

Michael Glawogger’s films demonstrate that the global phenomenon is the likeness of our inner worlds, extraordinary commonalities which should be relied on more often. In each workplace, and in each film, there are young people beginning a life of employment and older workers at the end of a life-long stint. “Time doesn’t stop,” says one of the madams in the City of Joy. The woman is intelligent and frank as she discusses the future of her family, how her daughter will also become a “whore.” At the end of the City of Joy segment, one of the girls (maybe 14, maybe younger) expresses the same understanding of the future as it looks from her position in the brothel. The only difference is that the madam has lived long enough to talk about it casually; she is tough and realistic about where her life will lead. Whereas the girl, because of the constraints of her age, can only imagine being in despair, as she is in this moment:

“We women are actually unhappy creatures. It is very hard to survive as a woman. Why do women have to suffer this much? Isn’t there another path for us? Is there a path at all?”

When generations pass through the same job, then time becomes malleable. Each group works alongside the other: one sees their possible future and the other sees a familiar past. They are divided by age, and therefore experience, but even the young people and children that Michael Glawogger spoke to understood that they had been born into a trap. The real horrors of Glawogger’s films are the moments when people, having been given an opportunity to open up, are crushed by their own words. They occasionally have love, and this is a remedy for some. But without money, “neither love nor lovers last,” says the madam in Faridpur.

Mark Seneviratne (@sene_mark) is a data analyst and writer based in Manchester, UK. He has published a short story in Not One of Us and numerous essays on film for Vague Visages, Film Inquiry and The State of the Arts.