Impoverished workers live on the edge in Brazil to make stuff that we use. Peek inside their world.
Dir. Nigel Noble, 2001, 70 min
Globalization has weaved such a knotty quilt of international cause and effect that you never know what injustice you may be unwittingly supporting. Take, for instance, your car. There’s steel in that car. One of the ways to make steel is from a material called pig iron. Pig iron is made by smelting iron ore with a high-carbon fuel. In Brazil, this process is done with charcoal. That charcoal is made by cutting away at the Amazon. The people who make a living off of this task – cutting down trees and burning them to charcoal – are the subjects of this film.
But The Charcoal People isn’t focused on globalization or the culpability of First World nations in the suffering of Third World nations. It’s about the people, plain and simple. It aims to help you understand their hardscrabble life and living. They chop down and burn trees in what, from their perspective, is an absurd, pointless cycle. But it’s the only way to pay the bills, so it’s what they do.
This doc is almost purely observational. It is either silently watching its subjects or letting them speak for themselves. There’s a scant narrative thread around the workers, who have a migrant life, moving into the rainforest as other sources of wood dry up, but the film is mostly a series of slice-of-life vignettes. One man will talk about his father’s past in Africa, and how it mirrors his own. A woman will discuss her husband’s firing as she does the wash. A teenage boy will explain his new job, slathering clay on the kilns used to fire the trees. It’s a tableau of small experiences that form into a greater impression of what it’s like on the bottom rung of society.
Director Nigel Noble does a terrific job of making hardship bleed through the screen. He turns the mechanics of industry and everyday life into a mesmerizing rhythm, driving home the monotony of life as base survival. But there are moments of quiet joy as well, and he brings those in. After all, people can find happiness no matter what their living situation. The Charcoal People is an elegantly straightforward presentation of a difficult situation. There’s a whole host of sociopolitical problems lurking in the background, but the human element is kept in the front, where it belongs.