How do we recount what doesn’t belong to us, what we don’t know, what is hidden under the earth? How do we speak about a geographical area linked to a job or a job that only occurs in a particular area? How do we narrate a community, a collective of people whose lives have revolved around a profession, a company, an almost mythical concept of social class? By building a group where words and images find both an urge and a shelter.
The Laboratory of Experimental Audiovisual Anthropology, Laav_, of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Castile and León, began in 2016 a project about an indefinite lock-in by the miners of Pozo Aurelio, in the town of Ciñera. The aim was to document what would be the last of the protests before the mine’s closure. That beginning ended up being crystallised in Puta Mina (Damned Mine). This was not just a documentary about mining, but a project enabling the voice of a community that had lacked one to be heard through the women of the mine, the cornerstone of that class and geographical area.
Puta mina is cinema and is viewed as such. The footage, approximately one hour long, was recorded by the miners of the Ciñera-Matallana mining area in coordination with the Laav_ in the context of the dismantling of the facilities of the Hullera Vasco-Leonesa company. On the screen, the images always advance at the cautious pace of the protagonists through the tunnels and galleries, at first broad and illuminated and in the end dark and damp, almost flooded. There are moments when everything acquires its own dimension, leading the viewer to forget that outside there is a sky, clean air, green on the mountains.
But Puta Mina is also heard. The dialogues are not the witty creation of a group of scriptwriters, but the result of conversations between a group of female miners who have never gone down but who, nevertheless, seem to have travelled the intricate underground labyrinth on more than one occasion. It is here when the film, the documentary, ceases to be cinema and becomes research and even testimony of a world that is about to disappear, at least as has been known up to now. What is moving, in the strictest and least sentimental sense of the word, is that the protagonists have been aware of this destiny from the very first sentence.
Hullera Vasco-Leonesa, which almost always appears here as the Company, was founded in Bilbao in 1893, for the purpose of supplying the Basque steel industry with coal from León. Judging from the news reports in the press in September 2018, it will shut its doors at the end of this year, 125 years after it opened. There are only 68 employees still working in the company. The mining sector in Spain reached a peak of over 100,000 employees in the 1950s and 60s. At the beginning of the 21st century, the figure was just below twenty thousand. Today, between Asturias, León, Palencia, Teruel and Ciudad Real, less than three thousand people pay Social Security contributions.
We view the screen. The cage begins its descent, which in the eyes of a layman appears infinite. Metals creak, the echoes of the engine are heard increasingly further away, the light from the lamp of the helmets travels on a moving surface that stops abruptly. We have arrived. The doors open. The miners begin their journey. And the coal women their dialogue.
The recordings were made in one of those offices occupied by neighbourhood associations or unions, full of filing cabinets, with photocopied memos pinned to a noticeboard on the wall, Although a photo exists of them, one could be forgiven for thinking that they took place in the privacy of someone’s home. In successful fictional cinema, the camera should never be seen, in the sense that the viewer should forget that this is a consensual deception. However, in successful documentary cinema, which tries to portray a reality, not emulate it or imagine it, it is to be applauded that the preparation and montage work enables it to dress it down. It could be said, listening to Puta Mina, that there were no microphones and that this office is a dining room in a house in Ciñera; or perhaps the kitchen, where you drink your coffee while the grey, northern light pierces the net curtains.
In the opening threads of the conversation, these women do not talk about themselves: as non-leading protagonists they hand over the floor to what we see, to what happens in the untamed, excavated earth. Rats that steal sandwiches, ice water seeping through the rock, 19% oxygen in the air. Always looking forward, enduring hernias and pains that are more acute on rest days, when the body cools. I feel as I am there working, says one of them, in a remark that seems to be about more than just empathy; it consists of taking on a shared burden out of conviction and need.
One of the film’s characteristics is that we do not know the names or the faces of the women who chat. We identify them gradually, as the conversation progresses, from their voices, from their tones, from their stories. From a girl of 21 years to a woman of 60, from those who still hold a connection with the time that has passed to those who still have a longer future to fear than history to remember. Ciñera bubbled with people, says one woman who recalls its heyday. Today, one senses a slow uncertainty in its streets. A whole social (eco)system that is disappearing.
The images shift from an illuminated gallery, with high ceilings, to a tunnel that is becoming increasingly narrow. The walls are black. They eat up the light.
The word comes up in the conversation. Accident. One of those words that get avoided, that are looked at askance, but for this community it is always there. 28 October, 2013, Emilio del Valle Mine, Santa Lucía de Gordón. A firedamp leak kills six miners. The gas escapes so suddenly that it destroys the oxygen in the corridor; nobody has time to put on the self-rescuers, protective masks, in order to survive. The press shows a picture of a woman crying, wearing dark glasses, with her hand to her mouth to cover her gesture of pain. Those who just a year before, on the most recent Black March to Madrid, described the miners as privileged, keep quiet.
The women say that since they were little, since they went to school, since they saw their fathers or brothers stained with soot, they have feared the sound of the siren. That siren of emergency and alert. They feared the look of the teacher who was searching for a female pupil, like in a sinister raffle, to pull her out of the games, out of her everyday life. One that broke a few hours later for everyone, young and old, men and women, neighbours all, to support the relatives of those who died that day. It even shakes a modicum of magical description but in their story, in their place, it sounds absolutely plausible: the day before a tragedy happened there was a supernatural silence in the air.
The camera, with colours altered by the ghostly light of the lamps, shows us toadstools that grow alongside a path, like deep-sea fish of the terrestrial depths.
Your role in this life is to be a miner’s wife, so there’s no need to worry if you do not work hard at school, one of the women says they were told by teachers in the mid-1980s, only three decades ago. The women in this film talk about machismo, about how their environment justified it due to the especially hard conditions of the work the men did. But they speak with the caution of those who want to change things without inflicting damage on what they see as an endangered community.
Their conversation is not so much directed at placing the blame on the shoulders of their fathers or husbands but in asserting their work, what has been called care, recalling the aphorism that for the fire in the factory to be lit the one in the home fireplace has to be lit first. The issue is the invisibility of this indispensable work for the functioning of any socioeconomic model: the reproduction of the workforce, its upkeep, the management of the family economy, the care of the sick or elderly. Things that happened with the naturalness and abnegation of storms. Until one day the proletarian women of the domestic arena decided to give this a voice.
A metal tube, with a powerful fan, carries oxygen hundreds of metres below the surface. It makes a hellish noise, but without it any human would die. The camera stops at the contraption for a few seconds, perhaps reminding us that we hang by a thread, by a simple mechanical failure.
The care work went unnoticed by everyone except, paradoxically, by the Company. The owners, for reasons of profitability, knew that they had to give their workers, but also their families, conditions that were better than the average so that nobody would throw in the towel a few months later. The older women remember when the Vasco provided a house with the job. The middle-aged ones say how public municipal policies were almost non-existent because everything, from the swimming pool or the food store to the football field, was supplied by the company. A golden cage, one woman says.
You, when you have cattle, you take care of them, another replies. This is one of the biggest contradictions that the film raises: how the women all hate the mine in one way or another, for everything that it has snatched away from them, for leaving their husbands prematurely aged in just two decades of work. But also how that Damned Mine provided them with a community, a raison d’être as a group, working-class pride. It is a feeling of rejection and kinship, which runs the risk of becoming a source of nostalgia about the closing, in a forced manner, of the sector in the country.
The agony of mining is the agony of the mining areas, of valleys that flourished and are now socially and economically devastated. In 2016, of the 20 million tons of coal consumed in the country, mainly by electricity companies, only three were for domestic coal. It is not a matter of contemporaneity or ecology, but of what is called competitiveness in neoliberal terms, or economic anarchy in human terms. It is preferable to import coal from other countries because it is cheaper, that is to say, in its extraction employment rights are conspicuous by their absence.
The end of mining in Spain, in addition, must be contextualised within the process of the general deindustrialisation to which the country has been subjected since its entry into the European Union. What was sold as a modernisation of our economy to meet market standards was nothing more than the adjusting of the country to serve as the periphery of a monetary union commanded by Germany. In exchange for a few funds, long-term gratuities, the end of Spanish economic sovereignty was sealed. And, incidentally, it did away with the heavy battalions of the proletariat, those that shook the bedrock of order when set in motion.
Solidarity started to be lost with the early retirements, the spirit and values of the working class, says one of the women. It is surprising to see how in 2018, at the time when fascination with the aspirational is at its zenith, where everyone seems to identify with that phantasmagoria called the middle class, these women employ with particular fluency a language and analysis that is not even taken into account by the leaders of the institutional left, who are more concerned about that construction called people or that legal category called citizenship than about the workers. It is less surprising if we remember that identity arises from a particular place and that, where the connection with the conflict between capital and work remains intense, it is perfectly understandable to know who you are, above the murky lustre of advertising and trends.
The conflict present in this film is that of modernity against postmodernity, that of order against chaos, that of benefit against greed. The contradiction that these women express is that which affects late capitalism, which is endangering liberal democracy through an excess of deregulation, that which poleaxed the political and economic leaders of the world back in 2008, when Lehman fell like a deck of cards. In the old mining industry, there was inherent exploitation of the economic system, but at least there was existential security, certainties, outlook. Today everything is indeterminate, today everything is full of uncertainty. There is no tomorrow onto which to cling.
On the screen, we see some stairs that lead to the lion’s den. One of the miners touches the wood that supports the walls of the descending tunnel; it’s almost a slide. This one cracks. Shaking.
Ciñera is another character in the documentary. It’s like one of those old fellows about whom people speak highly while they doze in the next bedroom watching TV under a blanket. The women remember its rich cultural life a couple of decades ago, about how they saw themselves as different from their friends and relatives from other parts of the province. About how some returned from the disco with a couple of philosophy books under their arms. You perceive their social status in all of them but also a brilliance that is above average, a product of a different micro-society.
If machismo or accidents were subjects where the conversation realised that it was on shaky ground, the proliferation of alcoholism and drug addiction is another issue in which words are carefully measured. If the bottle was the accepted narcotic, which ended with some people moored to the bar, hard drugs made their appearance in this community from outside. Paradoxically, the children who were sent abroad to study in the eighties in search of a more comfortable future grew hooked on a scourge that devastated the working-class neighbourhoods of half of Spain.
Several machines are at rest in a gallery; they are open, rusted. We do not know their function, nor whether they will ever be able to perform it again. A handwritten sign: Clearance due to renovation, cartridges for sale. Clearly ironic. Clearly real.
The women talk about the final defeat, about how they have been divided, by province, by region, by mining area. About doubts regarding how the union leaders have acted. About the certainty that the company, which claimed to be on their side in the fight against closure, had a hidden agenda from the very start: to take the money and run. But they also remember the fight with pride, the violent repression, how their phone or internet got cut off. And it is here when their voices fill with pride and anger. No battle waged is completely lost. They say that the bond between coal women, wherever they may be, remains intact, even more so than among the miners.
The camera focuses on a poster also written by hand: the thing is sinking.
There is a final act. While the cage climbs again to the surface, these women allow themselves to speak about all of us, male or female. About how their situation is nothing more than a magnification of what has been happening throughout the country. About the difference perhaps being that in their communities there has been conflict due to the union, conscience, resistance, while in most places the neoliberal steamroller has devastated the territories without further ado. All that we have lost, blood, struggle, our parents and grandparents, one of them says.
We emerge again at the surface. The defeat of the facts against the optimism of the will.
We are the ones who have to make the changes, says one of Puta Mina’s last female voices. Make the changes, like someone digging tunnels and galleries. Make history, like someone still remembering that time in which there were horizons and guides, that time about which this film is an epilogue.
But also a beginning.
Daniel Bernabé (Madrid 1980) is a Social Work graduate, although for the past few years he has worked as close as he can, or is allowed, to the world of literature or journalism. He was a bookseller for almost ten years in Madrid, but at present he writes columns, features and reports for a variety of media. He has does radio work in El Estado Mental. He has also published two books of stories, De Derrotas y Victorias (2011) and Trayecto en noche cerrada (2014) as well as La trampa de la diversidad, an essay that drew major attention in 2018. In 2017, he wrote a prologue for GB84, an asphyxiating text by David Peace about the mining protests in Thatcher’s Britain.