Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 26, 2011

Iron Crows

Filed under: Asia,imperialism/globalization,workers — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

The documentary “Iron Crows” that opens today at the Film Forum in NY derives its title from the nest made by a couple of crows in a tree on the desolate grounds of PHP, a ship breaking site in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Instead of using twigs, they build their nest from iron filings that are plentiful in a place where taking apart decommissioned ships is big business. The crows are a perfect metaphor for the men (and boys) who work there. At the end of each working day—the average wage is 2 dollars—they have to scrape iron filings from their feet and legs. Most of them work in bare feet or flip-flops and shorts. Until recently their employer, one of the more enlightened, did not even supply hard hats. An average of 20 workers dies in the ship salvaging industry each year. With a work force of 20,000, this is a shockingly high number.

“Iron Crows” is about as fine example of solidarity with the working class in film that I have seen since “Wasteland“, the documentary about the men and women who worked as recyclers in the world’s largest garbage dump at Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Artist Vik Muniz incorporated them in a series of large-scale photos based on classic paintings that used salvaged material of the kind that they extract from the dump each day.

Just as art can be created out of the bowels of Jardim Gramacho, it is gratifying to see Korean film-maker draw beauty out of a landscape that seems just as unpromising. But that he does. The sight of an enormous oil tanker floating silently into the shallow waters out of the morning mist near the PHP yards is as breathtaking as a Thomas Eakins seascape.

But the focus is almost entirely on men at work. Scaling the ships each day, they use blowtorches to “break” the ships into manageable blocks of metal that can be reused in new industrial production. Some 85 percent of Bangladesh’s iron comes from the Chittagong ship-breaking docks.

Except for the blowtorches, there is not a single labor-saving device at PHP. There are no forklifts or cranes. When a piece of the ship has been cut from a higher deck, the workers toss it over the side taking care that one of their comrades is not in the path of the projectile. Once it is on the ground, a crew of a dozen or so workers will hoist the slab of metal on their shoulders and walk it to an awaiting truck, all the while singing a work song that—to my astonishment—sounds exactly what I have heard from Leadbelly or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in a context that is not that far apart. Given the desperate situation of many of these workers who hail from northern Bangladesh and view PHP as a step up, there is a compulsory character to their labor that approximates prison labor in Mississippi or Alabama.

Despite their integration into the world capitalist marketplace, the workers retain customs from their village and a steadfastness to their Muslim faith that are not much different than the patterns Bengali people have followed for a thousand years. They sacrifice a goat at one point and mix its blood with sawdust. The mixture is then scattered into the bowels of the ship they are working on at the moment in order to ward off evil spirits.

As you watch them at their various tasks, you become mesmerized. Director Bong-Nam Park has an amazing ability to turn their labors into something approximating a ballet. The only other film that I have ever seen that comes near to delivering that sensation is “In the Pit“, a 2006 documentary about construction workers involved in building the second deck of Mexico City’s Periferico freeway that is available from Netflix, which I recommend highly.

The big difference between “In the Pit” and “Iron Crows” is politics. The Mexican film is primarily interested in the esthetics of work, while “Iron Crows” is also a cry for social justice that is often heartbreaking. A man who is featured in the film visits his home village in the north for his yearly reunion with his wife and relatives, where he sees his infant daughter for the first time. She was born blind because of an inadequate diet. While we are all aware of the crushing poverty of Bangladesh, seeing this man and his wife weeping over this tragedy makes it personal, which was obviously the intention of director Bong-Nam Park.

Clearly a turn is taking place in Korean film. Despite being one of the most exciting and innovative film industries in the world today, the emphasis has been mostly on genre, including ghost and gangster stories. Park’s documentary tells us that the wrenching changes brought on by globalization have inspired some Koreans into applying their skills to social and political topics.

Chittagong has a particular meaning for me since my old friend Bedabrato Pain, whose wife Shonali Bose directed “Amu“, screened his newly completed film “Chittagong” at NYU a couple of months ago. Chittagong was the site of an armed rebellion led by high school students in 1930 that was crushed by the British. I will have more to say about this film in a week or so, but will simply observe now that the promise of the struggle against British colonialism has only been partially fulfilled through independence. Nominally free, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are still prisoners of starvation.


Just received this email from an old friend from Bangladesh who actually lived not too far from Chittagong:

A minor comment on your review would be that workers retain rural customs and unorthodox Muslim traditions that are local to Bangladesh/ Bengal.  For example, theses practice, like sacrificing goats and warding of evil spirits, are also common among Hindu Bengalis, too.  Some of the workers in ship building industry in Chittagong are of Hindu origin too,  I believe.

Some of the religious/traditional practices of Bengali workers, such as beliefs in saints (“pir”), spirits (“jins”), etc. are not in accordance with (strict) Wahabi-type Islamic fundamentalism .  These beliefs and practices are often condemned by orthodox Muslim clergy and the likes of Jamaat-i-Islam.



  1. Thanks for this Lou, or giving me a all top brief recital of the great Sir George Sheaing, who I first heard when he was a member of the Ambrose Dance Orchestra, who gave him a solo spot, at the Ilford Hippodrome in 1940 shortly before the building was destroyed by a Navi bomb. Ny late wife and I followed his whole career and met him several times on his concerts in England, at each of which he graciously signed one of my LPs (and one CD), and, of course he well remembered his early appearance on the stage of the Ilford Hippodrome (in what is now east London, but then was a borough in Essex). His emigration to the US was a great loss to British Jazz – but her certainly made a long impact over the pond, becoming, without doubt, one of the greats of international jazz music.

    Comment by Paddy Apling — August 26, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

  2. Jins are referenced in the Quran. It’s funny how Wahhabi-types don’t seem to realize that their holy book has any number of ambiguities open to various interpretations.

    Comment by Binh — August 26, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  3. There is an overview of the ship-breaking industry in Bangla Desh at http://www.shipbreakingbd.info/EnglishSite.php, and a detailed report at http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/shipbreaking2005a.pdf. There are similar operations in India and Pakistan. The personal risks to the workforce and the environmental damage these place pose are unbelievable.

    Comment by Dr Paul — August 26, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  4. Just to add to your friend’s comments, “pirs” were (actually still are) worshiped at shrines by Hindus and Muslims alike in India and Pakistan (though, this practice is increasingly dying in Pakistan due to the rise of fundamentalist Islam; there have been many attacks on Sufi shrines of late).

    In fact the Sufi movement in Islam (and “pirs” are generally associated with Sufis) also influenced some heterodox strains of Hinduism. Thus both Hindus and Muslims are known to worship the same Sufi saints together (and of course share the same religious vocabulary suffused with concepts taken from ancient Vedic texts as well as the Quran. Some very beautiful poetry came out of the (Sufi) movement. See for example the poet Kabir (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabir)

    Comment by tveb — August 27, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

  5. What a horrible exploitation of labor and human life.

    Workers are exploited and endangered worldwide and I wish more could be done to stop this modern day slavery.

    Many Americans are oblivious to the fact that slave labor exists here too.

    There are garment factories in NYC that are really sweatshops that violate wage and safety laws.

    There are simply not enough inspectors to enforce the labor laws so they can’t be sure how many of these shops are currently operating.

    There are other industries too that use slave labor.

    We’re supposed to be a country that prides itself with protections to worker in regard to wages and safety.

    If this were true, we’d do more to stamp out the slave labor rackets that call themselves businesses.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — August 29, 2011 @ 4:43 am

  6. We may not have shackles, but we are all slaves of the ruling class.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — August 30, 2011 @ 3:20 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: