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Directed by Michael Kot. 2004. 42 minutes.
In English.

Study areas: India, Migrant Labor, Human Rights, Industry


The very first frames establish the location of the film - dust, smoke and haze blur the skyline of Alang in Gujarat, India and with the flames of blow torches, and small fires burning everywhere, the ambience of a graveyard is all pervasive.  Known as the biggest shipyard in the world with 10 km of oily shoreline, and 40,000 workers exposed every day to toxins, waste, asbestos and more, the similarities could not be more obvious.  On average, one worker a day dies here. Ironically, the workers also refer to the place as a kasai-ghat or butcher yard where ships come to die so people can survive. 

Two decades ago, this pristine shoreline with the occasional fisherman was transformed into the shipbreaking industry that is choking the landscape and squeezing life out of its natural resources as well as its workers and the people who live here.  A welcome sign that proudly proclaims, “Safety is Our Motto, Welcome to Alang,” is juxtaposed with shot after shot of dismal  conditions that depict bare survival. The irony cannot be more obvious.  The numbers speak for themselves - 9000 tons of steel, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in an inferno like environment.  It takes 500 workers and 6 months for a ship to disappear while the workers make just a few dollars a day. Even as this industry offers employment to thousands of migrant laborers, the heavy price paid is  apparent in the stories they tell and in the missing corpses.

The interviews with the gas cutters who are the elite workers in this band, illustrate their minimal knowledge of  operations, with instinct and luck playing a big role in how they approach this dangerous task. With no formal training or degrees in naval architecture or engineering, these workers perform their duties with uncleared gas lines blindly, by what the narrative voice terms “engineering in reverse”.  Through the story of Mittu, a young boy, we see the broken dreams that fill the lives of these workers.  He hopes that the measly wages will bring happiness to the family he left behind, even as he laments the death of a brother in the same industry.  The ironies, the juxtapositions, the montage of images of splintering steel hulls is stark, unnerving and sets the stage for an industry that thrives on the economies of low wages for unskilled migrant labor.

The narration also elaborates on the point of view of the shipyard owners: their concern with crippling interest rates and increasing competition that fuels the greed and drives the industry.  One shipyard owner offers his justification: the industry  provides employment, and is another way of recycling and hence good for the environment.  The Shipbreakers contextualizes the international horror of this man-made toxic wasteland that handles over 300 ships and 3 million tons of steel to produce recycled metal bars in a region with no steel manufacturing in violation of the UN Babel Accord signed by 116 countries. Greenpeace International, an NGO  based in Canada, has played a significant role as an advocacy group for the workers and their constant exposure to asbestos, PCBs and, other toxic materials that eventually leads 1 in 4 workers to develop cancer. Despite the international outcry, and the intervention of the Supreme Court of India that established safety guidelines for the industry, the exploitation continues.  The visual representation and rendition of an epic battle of man against machine and the horror behind it, is powerful, horrifying and simply heartbreaking.  Shipbreakers is appropriate for high school students and above, for courses in social studies, environmental Studies, cinema studies , and Asian studies

Dr. Ritu Saksena is the Associate Director for the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Program in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has taught several courses on World Literature and Global Cinema,. Her research interests include Postcolonialism, Cinema Studies and South Asian studies.

Shipbreakers is available on DVD from Cinema Guild.  Price is $250 for purchase and $75 for rental.

Additional Resources: William Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Langewiesche, William (2004). The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans. London: Granta Books. ISBN 0865475814

Rousmaniere, Peter (2007). "Shipbreaking in the Developing World: Problems and Prospects". International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Last Updated: October 4, 2010

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