Depicting Labor

The focus of the filmmakers in this section was in turning actual laborers, far removed from the world of glamor, into their protagonists. These three films capture people silently at work, their techniques and wisdom, even their efforts to get paid a decent wage, all as one seamless whole. At once removed from emotional humanism, they represent an attempt to examine human agency within a social structure.


UK / 1929 / Silent / English Intertitles / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 48 min [20 fps]

Director, Editing: John Grierson
Photography: Basil Emmott
Production Company: Empire Marketing Board Film Unit
Source: Japan Community Cinema Center
Violin Performance: Suzuki Takashi (Composer)

One of several masterpieces directed by John Grierson, father of the British Documentary Film Movement that introduced the term “documentary” to the world. The film is a vivid depiction of those working in the modern fishing industry, a field of labor typically ignored by fiction film. Far from focusing only on the practice of fishing itself however, it ingeniously incorporates a host of elements ranging from the mechanism of the boats used to the workers’ clothes, their food and everyday lives, the fish and the birds, a storm’s violent onslaught . . .  Its inclusion of scenes showing even the buying and selling of a day’s catch demonstrates an eclecticism of approach that would prove a reference point for subsequent works.

People Burning Coal (People Making Charcoal)

(Sumiyaku hitobito)

JAPAN / 1940 / Japanese / B&W / 35mm / 19 min

Director, Story: Atsumi Teruo
Photography: Kuribayashi Minoru
Music: Ito Senji
Production Companies: Osaka Mainichi Shimbun Sha, Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun Sha
Source: National Film Archive of Japan (Kobe Planet Film Archive 16mm print blown up to 35mm)

Winter in a Tohoku (northeast Japan) mountain village. Inhabitants live the traditional life, eking out a living through charcoal. The film carefully depicts their process of collecting stones for the furnace, then making and selling the charcoal, woven through with glimpses of lyricism along the way: a closeup of a man staring at the heat; a distant shot of people trudging through a snowfield. The use of simultaneous recording captures the charcoal burners’ conversations as they buy food with their meagre income. Eager to include “real” performances, director Atsumi Teruo recruited his amateur actors from among the actual workers themselves. Their performances are put to the test in the onslaught of a blizzard near the film’s end.

The Ama Divers of Wagu

(Wagu no ama)

JAPAN / 1940 / Japanese / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 25 min

Director: Ueno Kozo
Photography: Kitamura Kojiro
Sound: Takeda Toshikazu
Music: Miya Junzo
Production Company: Yokohama Cinema Shokai
Source: Kobe Planet Film Archive

This film by former Prokino (Proletarian Film League of Japan) member Ueno Kozo was his first upon returning to filmmaking after a stint spent working as a film critic: a meticulous depiction of ama divers from Wagu on the Shima peninsula, Mie Prefecture, tirelessly going about their work. It stands out today for its free underwater photography, a state-of-the-art technology perfectly suited to capturing the divers’ graceful movements. Elsewhere, their relaxed facial expressions and the hum of the seashore are brought vividly to life with sound captured on location. At the same time, the film stands testament to the ruthless reality of this work, performed exclusively by women.