As the doors close on a group of miners cramped into a dimly-lit elevator, one of their colleagues on the other side gives a brief announcement: “good luck!” The well-meaning phrase, which serves as the title of Ben Russell’s latest feature-length, precedes a 600-meter descent into Bor mine, in the east of Serbia. Russell captures this 5-10 minute plunge into the earth in its entirety, shaping an atmosphere centered around a peculiar sense of awe. It’s a stunning opening scene, claustrophobic yet enthralling, exhausting yet exciting. For the first half of Good Luck, the audience is taken through the underground mine in Serbia, drawn into contact with its workers, and the realities of their day-to-day life. Around the halfway point of the film, everything – bar the central focus of ‘mining’ – shifts. Russell returns to Suriname, the country where he has shot the bulk of his work. The abject darkness of the depths of Bor is promptly traded for the unwavering sun of Suriname’s outdoor mine. Copper turns to gold and the state evaporates into something more anarchic, yet there’s an implicit understanding at the core of all of this: it’s not so different. In the two-halves that make up Good Luck, Russell examines the incarnations of the mining process, depicting the havoc it wrecks on the environment, before reflecting on its universality and the collective complicity in a global industry. Like the breadth of Russell’s work, Good Luck is a documentary that works hard to evade expectations of form, genre, and style, resulting in an expansive and terrifying piece.
We spoke to Ben Russell about the film, his lengthy relationship with Suriname, and the experience of shooting for the first time in Serbia at Locarno Film Festival. This interview was conducted alongside Srđan Jokanović, from the Belgrade-based print publication, Ilustronova Politika.
Note: Good Luck is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Srđan Jokanović: I know that you were exposed to Suriname through your previous films, but how did you end up choosing a Serbian mine?
Ben Russell: I mean we were looking for some kind of a corollary for quite a while, and initially we were looking in the north. We were looking in spaces that had a more industrialised governmental stem of working. My Croatian co-producer had connections to the Serbian mine in Bor. I believe it was maybe a bit easier to access because of political conditions of Serbia, and also because the mine was state-owned. It had been privatised previously, and had reverted back to the state, but it was on the cusp of being privatised again, so I think there was less at stake. Having the filmmaker come into that mine comes with a very rich history of media representations for it. It was where [Dušan] Makavejev shot A Man Is Not A Bird. In the ’60s — I think this was common in a lot of Communist and Socialist working spaces — the workers had their own newspaper, they had their own kind of political representation, in terms of media. So there’s a fairly good archive of films that were made in the mines, and these were workers who were already kind of aware of themselves as cinema subjects in some capacity.
Jokanović: Your search for a small country like Suriname… you didn’t want to go to, for instance, Russia?
We spent a good time looking for a mine to access, a larger one. At some point it was more of a corporate mine, but as you can imagine, most mining operations are not so interested in having artists get free reign or have access to a space in that way. I mean, getting access to certain homes was very easy because it was illegal. All I had to do was pay off people who ran it. And the fact that I speak Saramaccan and knew people in our community for quite a while made it much easier to get in, but you can’t [get into mines]. I mean, sure you can bribe people, but it wasn’t possible.
Jokanović: Why do you think it was so easy to get permission in Serbia?
In Serbia, I think it was a result of the fact that filmmaking is always a matter of timing. The project took about four and a half years. We had been looking for a long time to get access to a space and I think that it was just a matter of entering into the right space at the right time through a particular set of contacts. So I actually recused myself from that. I like to believe it was fairly straight-forward and we were welcomed with open arms without any kind of hostility or animosity. It seems like it was seen, maybe, as being in the interest of the mine, right? I have no idea.
Jeremy Elphick: I’m always fascinated with the dynamic that plays out in shooting in relatively remote, or at least, austere locations. I’d imagine an experimental film crew going into a mine in Serbia would be a bit of a scene, but there’s clearly that exposure already in the history; especially after hearing you mention that A Man is Not A Bird was shot there. But I’m curious as to how you consider and approach these communities. Do you have a particular method that engages the community, or at least reassures it in some capacity?
Yeah, I mean, it varies from place to place, but I think the thing about cinema is nobody ever knows what you’re shooting. Even when you need to get down to the level of framing a shot. If you’re a person on the other side of the camera, you have no idea if it’s a close-up or if it’s a wide-angle. The subject never has any notion of what they’ll become. In Suriname, they know my work because I’ve made films there. I think this is the sixth film that I’ve made there? Short films, feature films… they have a sense of it. Their sense of cinema, generally, isn’t that ‘expansive’. They’ve seen a lot of television, but most of them probably have never been to the movie theatre. So yeah, as a sort of way of working I try to get into these places for at least a month. And I don’t shoot for probably the first two weeks, or if I shoot, I shoot very little.
Elphick: Right. That seems like a good approach with this sort of a film.
And that’s a matter of being present and kind of having this community of subjects, which is a weird thing to call them. But they become subjects, right? The community that I’m working with just can’t get used to my presence immediately, and I have to figure out who I can work with and who I can’t work with because not everybody is excited about cinema. Not everybody is excited about being in films, and I don’t want to film people who don’t want to be filmed.
Elphick: Did you find balancing that difference in familiarity difficult at all? Between shooting in a location where you’d shot quite a few films in the past against a location where you hadn’t been before?
Sure, I mean Serbia was a lot harder. It’s a lot easier to shoot in, but it was a lot harder to become familiar with, or: to have the people I was working with become familiar with me. I mean, for the simple fact that I don’t speak Serbian. It didn’t help but I did had two fixers. One was a translator from Bor, and then I brought a friend who is a sort of film fixer, a Serbian fellow who lives in Malta: Slavko Vukanovic, a wonderful human being.
But nobody was able to actually crack the people from the community – the fixers or staff or even Slavko or Jakov [Munižaba], my sound recorder — none of them were actually able to crack the surface of these miners, who felt very stayed. They were kind of like, reserved, maybe because of how and where they were working, or maybe due to some sort of cultural affect. I’m not really sure, but it took a while to get in. That’s why I filmed in Serbia first, and then went to Suriname; to sort of have that material in the back of my mind while I was shooting, and constructing images and spaces in Suriname. For me, it’s very difficult, but difficult in a wholly other way. It’s not physically hard, but it’s emotionally really tough.
Jokanović: I saw many differences between Suriname and Serbia. In your approach, or at least in your results. It seems that in Suriname they were destroying their ecosystem, quite radically, and in Serbia that didn’t seem to be the case.
Have you been to Bor?
Jokanović: Yes… but it has had that kind of environment for centuries. I mean, it never was a good day or –
So they just destroyed it a long time ago, is what you’re saying?
Jokanović: But in Suriname, it seems radical with all the jungles and animals for me. In the end, they get something: some silver, some gold. In Serbia they did not get anything. How did you interpret that?
I mean to me mining is a terrible, horrible industry that destroys everything. But it’s also something that all of us are directly implicated in. In Serbia, they’re mining for copper. We have copper everywhere. There’s copper in this recorder, there’s copper in all of the electronics that we use. There’s copper in all these places, and gold too. I don’t wear gold, but most people I know do. It’s a sign of vanity and it’s a metal. It doesn’t have much function, but it’s why they distribute it. It’s also the index for the dollar and the gold standard.
It seemed clear to me in entering into this project that both of these processes are just fucked. They’re bad, like fundamentally, but they’re also a very old processes that been going on since 10,000 BC — before, even. You know, mining as a way of being, that pulls materials from the earth. It’s also why I shot on film. Film material is silver highlight crystals, and the emulsion of silver is also a product of the mining industry. It felt important to implicate myself as well in this thing.
In terms of who is worse, I mean, the scale of Bor is insane. The mine is 400-metres underground, but it’s beneath a giant, open-pit mine that I believe is the largest in Europe. Before Bor, there were villages, which were doing small-scale mining or not doing mining. From Bor you can see this land-filled horizon — this artificial horizon — from anywhere in the city, you can hear the sound of this work siren that goes off three times a day. From anywhere in the city. The zoo animals howl after the siren is finished, which is a sound you hear in the credits. If you go around this false mountain, you can see that the water is red, and the red water is going into the stream that goes out. On the flipside, in Suriname they’re using mercury, which is incredibly toxic and it’s going to give everybody who works there problems in their nervous system in about 15-20 years.
Jokanović: They know about it?
They know about it, but I mean people in Suriname, like the people in Bor… I mean, in Bor the workers are actually very well paid. They’re still paid quite close to the salary of the Vice President, let’s say. The amount of work they do isn’t related to how much they’re going to make. It’s not a function of how much copper they pull out of the ground, although of course if they don’t pull out enough then the mine shuts down and they don’t have jobs at all. In Suriname, yeah, I mean there’s gold. There’s gold to be found. Not a lot though, which is why these men work for long periods of time, staying in that false village for a while until they come away with something.
Jokanović: How long did you shoot in Serbia?
Jokanović: Only one month? When you go in the mine in Serbia, it seems that there is only you, a camera, and one or two guys in front of you. Was it the same in Suriname, or was there more security and preparation when you were shooting there?
Suriname, I mean it’s potentially very dangerous. I also worked in this mine because there aren’t any Brazilians working there. In Suriname, there’s always a presence of violence. They’ve placed lots of illegal mines in Suriname, and some of them can be much more like the ‘Wild West’. That’s because there are Brazilians coming, maybe not even ‘Brazilians’, but people coming from different communities who don’t speak the language. If you’re working on a gold sight for three months, then the only thing you have with you is gold. When you go to the bar, you buy your beer with gold. You get paid back in gold. You’re an easy person to rob. If you wanted to rob somebody that’s what you would do. There is quite a bit of violence, but not in this mine. Not so much. Because it’s mostly Saramaccans working there. The Saramaccans tend to have pretty large family structures. A friend of mine has 49 siblings. His father has 49 children with seven women.
Jokanović: There wasn’t at any moment of danger for you and the crew in the mines of Serbia?
In Serbia, we were always with somebody from the mine. Of course, there is a hierarchy of labour. So there are the miners, and then the engineers, and then the administration. We were always with an engineer.
Jokanović: Have accidents happened in the mine often?
Accidents happened but not very often in this mine — which seems crazy, because it’s so old. I think they’ve been working there for a long time so they understand what they’re doing and how to do it.
Jokanović: At the press conference first you compared your film, if I understood correctly, to James Cameron’s Alien, covering the area in that way?
I actually think that most of the machines that James Cameron is using are low. They’re squat and they have the tops sort of removed so that they can fit through these tunnels. In Serbia, we were riding in a repurposed military jeep that had the top removed so that it could move through these spaces. The machines are all very squat and loud. They’re diesel-powered, and they filled the tunnels with fumes. They exude a certain amount of heat whenever you’re near them. The temperature could rise 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the space of 4 minutes or something. There weren’t any xenomorphs there, and there weren’t any US Marines with large guns, so it wasn’t dangerous in that sense. But in terms of lighting, movement, definitely.
Jokanović: But all the treatment, when you mentioned all the treatment, you were surprised?
Yeah I mean, you know this. Yugoslavia in the ’70s was quite prosperous, and was doing quite well. This was the heyday for the mine. They had new equipment then, but a lot of the equipment hasn’t been updated since the ’80s or ’90s, I think — just before the war, or when the war happened. So it’s not quite to the extent of what you see in the scenes in Suriname, with people like, tying pieces of rubber around old motors. But it is getting close, I think.
Elphick: A lot of the machinery in some of the mines, you’re saying, has been outdated for quite a while. I know you mentioned that you wanted to shoot on film and had a clear rationale for that for this film, but I was wondering if there was any particular reason beyond costs for going with 16mm?
I’ve been working in film for a long time. I’ve come to understand that I always need to find a reason to shoot on film or like some rationale for it, some sort of rationalisation. But I do own my own equipment, and 35 millimeter is twice as expensive, twice as heavy. So if you’re going to travel to some place for a month, and you have to bring all of your gear with you, you’re walking into a tunnel and carrying everything, you want it to be light and you want to know how to fix it if it breaks, and you want to be able to work with it and know that you feel comfortable.
Elphick: The film was funded, to some degree, by documenta, right?
Elphick: I’m curious about that dichotomy — shooting in these quiet, detached, often economically-poorer locations, and presenting a work in these largely exclusive, wealthy cities and events. How do you negotiate that disparity between these two worlds?
Yeah it’s always difficult. I think the biggest problem comes from imagining that because a work is given a particular frame — like Locarno or documenta — that I somehow have as much money as the festival that’s bringing me here; or the institutions bringing me here. I mean, the fact is that I made very little. I mean, I was paid very little for this film. I did all of the work, and received very little – not because my producers are bad, but because funding non-traditional documentary is not something that happens, especially in this way. An American making a film with a small crew in Serbia and Suriname doesn’t plug into any sort of national funding scheme.
My first feature Let Each One Go Where He May was shot in Suriname as well, and it premiered in Rotterdam in the main competition there. I was able to bring these two guys who were in the film to the Netherlands. When they got there it was a huge shock for them. I think their uncle picked them up, and I mean they were kept in security for four hours beforehand – because they were suspected of being drug mules, right? Because they’re poor and black and don’t speak Dutch. They were brought to the hotel eventually by their uncle. As he dropped them off he said: “This is the most expensive hotel in Rotterdam, I hope they’re paying you a lot.” It caused a lot of conflict, because there’s no way to articulate how these economies work. Locarno doesn’t pay for flights, for instance, it gives us three nights at a hotel – and this is not to criticise Locarno, but to point out the structure of Locarno – but this is also why when I work, I pay everybody that I work with.
In Serbia, I couldn’t pay them because it was a national mine. It had a different structure and they were directed to not take anything. We tried to give them gifts, which they wouldn’t take. In Suriname though, definitely, I mean it’s the only way to get access to that place. I mean, I probably could have gotten access without paying, but I’m not interested in that. It’s a flimsy way of dealing with this disparity, but it feels important to compensate people for their time in whatever way.
Elphick: I think there’s always that sense of inherent conflict in a lot of these art institutions and festivals — whether it’s the wealth of the attendees or the organisation itself.
It’s a strange. It’s a really strange set-up, and it’s something that I’m super aware of – especially since I’m working with film. Video has a less material cost — you’re not aware of how much the tape costs or something, but the gear itself is really expensive. With film, a roll of film costs something like $200. That’s to shoot and process for ten minutes. If you’re shooting like that, you know how much money you’re spending. You decide to make a shot and you know how much it costs. $200 can be how much one of these guys would make in two weeks or a month sometimes, so yeah. It’s a one-to-one thing, but it’s difficult.
Jokanović: How did you fall in love with Suriname, to end up making as many films as you have there?
I was in the Peace Corps when I was 22.
Jokanović: What did you do?
I was a development worker. I worked for a large American institution from the Peace Corps. It was started by John F. Kennedy in the ’60s, as a way of promoting “American skill and leadership” throughout the world, I think? Now it functions mainly as cultural exchange. I graduated from college after studying Critical Theory, Media Theory, Anthropology, and Contemporary Art. I went to this development organisation with not the largest skillset, but taught English and other things as well. I came into this place where I was supposed to be trained to do whatever, and I was equipped in a village and I lived there for two years.
In the United States, at least in my experience — which is similar to a lot of other people’s experience — we go where our jobs go, so we don’t have particularly strong connections to communities. We become fractured and separated pretty quickly. Living in a village where I knew everybody – I knew everybody’s mother, I knew everybody’s father, I knew everybody’s grandmother, I knew everybody’s child – was a pretty radical shift. It was also the fact that I learned this language over time, and people supported me. I was the only white guy there and I was maybe the seventh person, the seventh foreigner to ever live in that area – preceded by missionaries, anthropologists, and two development workers.
It was a pretty radical, transformative experience, in no small part because of the people I was working with. I mean, I went there sort of not even hoping for some deeper, like, universal truth of humanity. The truth is that people are just like assholes everywhere and they’re wonderful everywhere, you know? I mean, people are just people. If they’re animists – if they believe in jungle gods, spirits, blood, and centipedes – they’re still just humans. It’s a community that I’ve worked with, that took care of me, and I’ve just continued working there for a long time.
Jokanović: Could you live in Serbia, for instance?
Could I live in Serbia? I think I would need to know Serbian. I was in Bor in March and Bor — with no disrespect intended — is one of the gloomier places I’ve been. I mean, I could not live in Bor. I mean, it’s a strange place. I think only people who work in the mine or connected to the mine live there.
Jokanović: And you’ve seen only Bor?
I’ve spent a little time in Belgrade, which is dynamic, and lively, and trembling, and difficult. Maybe with [Aleksandar] Vučić it’s tougher to be there.
Jokanović: You put it in the film.
Yeah, I mean it was there, right, which is sad. The parallel to that is this person that they mentioned in Suriname, [Dési] Bouterse, who is the president of Suriname.
Jokanović: The same kind of guy?
The same kind of guy except Bouterse… he was the leader of a military coup shortly after Suriname declared independence, who basically like, fucked up the economy of Suriname, fucked up its development strategies for the next 30 or 40 years. He’s happy to say he’s a crook, that he’s a thief. He personally executed five journalists during this coup and was on trial in The Hague. He was indicted in The Hague for drug smuggling. His son is in jail in the United States because he tried to sell rocket launchers to the CIA and proposed setting a Hamas training camp.
Jokanović: This one [Vučić] did not achieve all of this… yet [laughs]
Yeah, right, but I mean, Vučić was… I mean he’s implicated.
Jokanović: Do you think any of those miners will have a problem after this film, because they work for a state-owned mine?
I thought about it, but I suspect the mine has been privatised.
Jokanović: But they knew that you were a filmmaker. They say that they “shouldn’t be doing this,” and it’s clear that there was a kind of position in terms of… I don’t know. Maybe in Suriname, they were not political at all?
I mean they’re political in the sense that… I mean that conversation around labour and the future of their children.
Jokanović: But in terms of this ‘high politics’? Like with the Serbian miners all talking about Vučić?
I mean the Serbian miners… I would imagine they all have educations, that they’ve all gone to school. The war in the interior [the Surinamese Interior War] — this war that Bouterse and Ronnie Brunswijk caused — interrupted an entire generation’s education for 10 years. If you were about to go school in 1983, then you didn’t go to school for 5 years, 6 years, 7 years, because there were jungle guerrillas shooting up the interior of schools and the interior of hospitals. All the doctors and all the teachers left. They’re struggling to advance and you don’t. None of us work in an illegal gold mine and knowingly take on these practices and that’s because we have more opportunity open to us.
I think Saramaccans — men for the most part — they work as like day labourers, and the kind of labour that happens in the gold mine is better for them, because they have more agency. They work for their own people who treat them a bit better than if they were working for, like Hindustani or Javanese work leaders on construction sites. In terms of community it’s better, but nobody really wants to be working there.
I mean it’s not a declared kind of politic, but it’s a politic. I think one of the challenges in making documentary films is trying to figure out at what point do you explain the situation? At what point do you historicise, narrativise, propose a set of coordinates for an audience to enter into? I think there’s no way that I can properly describe the history of the Saramaccan population within a film.
Jokanović: That was not the point of this film.
It’s not the point, yeah that’s not what I’m after. I think that knowledge within a Western regime is really… it’s a trap, you know? We imagine that if we know things about people or places, that we somehow understand them, that we somehow own them. We have some leash on what and how they operate. It’s a false idea. It’s something that I think has allowed colonialism and neo-imperialism to happen around the world, because we assume that if we know somebody’s name, and we know where they’re from, then we somehow know them. I don’t believe it.
In a particular kind of post-colonial approach, I’m really interested in resisting those things and proposing that the understanding of a visceral experience of time and bodies is much more productive and generative, because it implicates the audience in a system without really giving them a way out; reverting back to a kind of a fact-naming to me is like, a very low-level experience.
Jokanović: I read somewhere that you describe your films as like… an ethno-film?
Elphick: Ethnographic, right?
Yeah, I mean, I use ethnographic loosely because I’m not an anthropologist and so, as an artist I can take things in a certain way but I think the aim of ethnography as a social science is a certain kind of comprehensive study. I usually pair the word ethnographic with psychedelia and talk about it as psychedelic ethnography, as a kind of visceral experience of bodies: a way to understand ourselves or to understand the world.
Jokanović: It’s interesting with your experience, you were talking about the subject –
Yeah, but I think they’re all there. It’s like, how does one approach the subject? How does a white male American go about making film in a mine in Serbia? Like, what do you know, how do you prepare yourself for this? How do you prepare an audience, how do you approach the subject? I think it becomes bit more pointed — although I think it’s the same system — when going to film in Suriname except that dark-skinned people have been much worse represented in cinema’s history than white-skinned people. So there’s a kind of responsibility in thinking about how this happens, and what kinds of knowledge systems you’re plugging it into and yeah, how you’re thinking about this.
Jokanović: Are you thinking at all about the premiere in Serbia?
Jakov is going to show it in his apartment [laughs]. No, I mean, actually there’s a cinema in Bor —
Jokanović: I think they have had enough of that… maybe for Beograd people, it’s more interesting, because they don’t know much about it?
Yeah yeah yeah. I mean, in Bor as well, though. Like, most of the people have never been in a mine – because of course if you work, if you’re a miner, you don’t get to bring your spouse underground. You don’t get to bring your kids underground. I’m sure they’ve seen photographs, but their sense of what the men in their community are doing on a daily basis… I don’t think it’s so present. It’s known but it’s not understood.
I think it’s important on all levels, and I think it’s also important for these workers to understand themselves as part of like a broader kind of global community of labourers; which maybe they already do, but pedagogy isn’t my aim.