The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Documentary “We were miners” about the end of mining and clichés

The documentary "We were miners" follows five miners before and after the closure of the last German coal mine. Swiss co-director Christian Johannes Koch explains how the documentary challenges clichés in an interview with the Keystone-SDA news agency.

Actually, there was hardly anything to suggest that Christian Johannes Koch should descend into the last German coal mine with the only camera made especially for this purpose. But that's what happened. That is precisely what is so exciting about documentaries, said Koch in an interview with the Keystone-SDA news agency. "You constantly come across topics that you think don't concern you at all. Until you then see that they do on various levels."

He and his German co-director Jonas Matauschek never had a classic miner's film in mind with "Wir waren Kumpel". For once, the focus was not to be on the supervisors of the various mine sections, as is so often the case, but on workers who represent underground mining as a whole.

The documentary therefore features Thomas, the wardrobe manager who has never been underground in 42 years, and the mining duo Locke and Langer, who are confronted with various questions of meaning and identity following the closure of the mine. Martina, who is the only female miner in Germany since her gender reassignment, and the Sri Lankan train driver Kiri, who is called Jim Knopf by his colleagues, complete the ensemble.

Filming under time pressure

When Koch decided to make a documentary film after his first visit to the mine, just a few years before it closed, he knew he had to hurry. "That's another exciting thing about documentaries: you start shooting while you're still developing the material." It was clear to him and Matauschek that they wanted to make the film not just about the miners, but together with them. "This created a great deal of trust during the process, which took four years in total."

This allows reflection processes to be observed, for example on the question of personal responsibility. In the film, for example, we see Langer being confronted at the kitchen table by his politicized son about the connections between his work and the climate crisis. "Langer in particular asked himself more and more questions - and then realized that his new job as a bus driver made him feel much more a part of society than his identity as a miner," said Koch.

Truthfulness instead of reality

When asked about the documentary method and whether everything always happened in reality as if no camera had been present, Koch replied that so-called "reality" is something subjective. "I'm more interested in verisimilitude." For him, the main requirement for a scene is that it corresponds to the dynamics between the characters. For example, there is a scene in the film in which Langer, who often oversleeps, arrives late for his morning meeting with Locke. "Since he knew we were waiting for him with the camera, he was guaranteed to show up on time that morning. So we simply gave him a later time."

It is only this small manipulation that makes the authentic reaction of Locke, who is annoyed by his colleague's "typical" lateness, possible at all. Instead, there were other things that corresponded to reality but had to be cut out of the movie "because nobody would have believed us." For example, that the constant buzzing in the mine is not caused by machines, but by crickets that feed on the workers' leftovers and feel very comfortable in the humid, almost Mediterranean climate of the mine. "The worlds simply didn't fit together."

Roughness as performance

This last statement then also fits in with the question of how relevant the closure of the last coal mine in Münsterland and the fate of its workers still is. Especially when Koch emphasizes how anachronistic this world seemed to him, almost like a museum. "In there, it feels like stepping out of a time machine. For example, the image of masculinity that is conveyed there. But when you spend time with these people, you quickly realize that the gruff tone, for example, is simply part of a performance."

Koch was also amazed at how openly the mine dealt with Martina's transition and how accepting someone as obviously foreign as Kiri is. Even if it was perhaps irritating at first that he was called Jim Knopf, "it was simply their way of integrating him." In any case, he is quite allergic to the image of "ordinary" workers that prevails in certain circles, to which he also belongs as an artist. With "Wir waren Kumpel", he and his co-director succeed not least in questioning precisely this image.

*This text by Dominic Schmid, Keystone-SDA, was realized with the help of the Gottlieb and Hans Vogt Foundation.


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