The voices of the mine. Regarding the process in creating Puta mina (Damn Mine). Chus Domínguez

Noviembre 2018

The last shout. 1

In June 2016, nearly everything was lost. Four miners from the Hullera Vasco-Leonesa company had shut themselves indefinitely in the Aurelio pit, near the town of Ciñera, as a protest against the government’s refusal to approve compensation on closing the mines. Conchi Unanue, an anthropologist and a Laav_ colleague who was raised in the area, said that it was urgent for us to film the lock-in since this was the last shout of the mining industry, a desperate cry that was not concerned with seeking an improvement in working conditions in the future. Rather, it sought the mine’s closure, albeit an organised one with the involvement of the company’s workers. Lacking the time to design a project that had already been forced upon us, we decided to give a camera to the miners so that they could film the lock-in. Given the isolation they encountered in the mine, we could only try to make them aware of the interest that would be created by a recording of everything that, insofar as they were able and wished, would reflect their situation.

While we waited for the pictures to arrive, we summoned the group of people with whom, apart from the confined miners, we could create and develop an audiovisual project. This was a project that, beyond the actual protests, would examine the social situation of mining, as well as its origins and evolution. We started by organising a meeting in a central café in Ciñera with several women who had connections to the mine, almost all local inhabitants. The fact that we limited our invitation to women made it clear that we were interested in hearing the voices of those we considered an essential part of the mining community, but who had barely received any legitimacy as authorised voices.

In that first meeting, we were able to clearly observe an example of the inertia afflicting the mining region when a local man approached the only male present at the meeting (the writer of this article) to ask jokingly what was going on. Although it was informal, his presence served to issue a kind of warning. Or, at the very least, he was trying to poke his nose in.

As a way to start, it was proposed at the meeting that the women involved would record conversations in a variety of situations, either among themselves or with other local women, and they were assigned two audio recorders for the purpose. The idea was to record dialogues about the social issues that continued to surround the mine and the life associated with it. The group agreed to meet periodically to collect the material recorded and to progress with the audiovisual project, while waiting to see what might happen with the lock-in. From then on, two action groups had already been identified: one that would be generating images in the mine and another that would collect the voices of the women.

Puta Mina (Damned Mine).

We soon began to receive the videos recorded by the miners during their lock-in. They showed situations such as strolls through the mine or the collective writing of a declaration, while jokes were made explicitly to the camera. Their arduous conditions and the impossibility of exchanging impressions about the meaning and need for these recordings made us feel that some of the recordings would be difficult to use. As was understandable, the miners did not film many of their difficult moments, such as their many hours of inactivity or moments of anguish. The difficulty we envisaged in the possibility of assembling these materials may have been related to the fact that the request for the recording had come from the outside -our side- and not from the miners themselves. They did not have a clear awareness of the scope the materials recorded by them might have. In any case, we tried again to inform them, while always considering the sensitivity of their situation, of the importance of reflecting the different moments they were experiencing in their confinement.

The next recordings we received, as well as the relaxed scenes we have already mentioned, showed further strolls through the mine in which they described places and tasks that they had been undertaking before their work ended. It was an ode to those tasks that were disappearing. After the lock-in had lasted several days, approximately one hour of material had been recorded. It was impossible to obtain an image of the lock-in that reflected inactivity or anguish. The miners would not stop filling the silences and talking, showing their voices, in a sort of spell that seemed aimed at bringing the mine back to life as they went around identifying the galleries, tools or tasks.

The situation took on a difficult new phase when the four miners started a hunger strike. Finally, they abandoned their protest a few days later. They had spent a total of 19 days in the mine. The day the miners came out we recorded the cries of support for them in the entrance of the mine. At sunset, amid a sensation of defeat that hung over a landscape that was virtually a ruin, a conversation with a group of women led one to utter the pairing puta mina that would end up giving the project its name.

Give voice, have voice.

With regard to the recordings of conversations made by the women, we realized that these kept being postponed and were hardly getting made. It seemed that somehow our presence was required for the meetings and recordings to happen; as mere mediators or technicians for the recording; as virgin ears for stories that had often been told; or, perhaps, as those who legitimised the importance of recording those conversations. This contributed to our feeling that in the communities of practices connected with Laav_, our presence is as necessary as that of others and that everyone, including us, contributes to the project from their field of knowledge and action. This, despite the fact that our voices, apart from Conchi Unanue’s, barely appeared in the recordings since our role was to listen and learn about a culture that was relatively removed from us. Nevertheless, we assumed the task of catalysing meetings and technical recording, while attempting to bring a certain awareness of filmic construction to the dialogue situations.

Several hours of conversations were recorded, first in cafés and later at the school in Ciñera, which became our usual meeting place. At the beginning, it had been suggested that both the women directly involved in the project and any others related to the mine would participate in the recordings (the importance of the testimony of older women was discussed, for example). However, in the end most dialogues took place between those who formed part of the group that had been created. This is a characteristic form of the work of Laav_: projects are developed from the first person and are built collectively from the experiences of those who comprise the group.

During these recordings, some women with fewer ties to the locality of Ciñera gradually began to join. They belonged to the Coal Women association, which in recent years has played a leading role in numerous demands linked to mining. It is indeed revealing that one way of recognising this association in the public space and in the media is through a slogan that brings their voices and their bodies directly to mind: “There they are, that’s them, the Coal Women”. An interesting slogan, it simply says, by naming them, we are. As Marlene Schäfers writes, the voice, through the performative act of its repetition, “represents a disciplinary force capable of generating social categories and subjective positions”2. Being requires having a voice, a voice that wants to count and to be taken into account. As they themselves claim, they want to be known as the Coal Women and not as miners’ wives. It would seem that the mantra “there they are…” would serve to be invested with a denied power, a slogan that is also expressed from the third person, as evidence that recognition must come from outside.

Although it may be read today as a simplistic dichotomous opposition of man-woman, orality-writing, in The Voice in Cinema, Michel Chion speaks of the feminist movement as one of the reasons why importance was given to the voice in the 70s, when the book was written: “Feminist discourse usually sets out the voice as a fluid, continuous expression as opposed to what is written, with its firmness and discontinuity; or to the word, with its limited, circumscribed, organising nature. The voice would be a space of freedom which women would have to take back”3. This “taking back” refers to a fight for power in which the parity between the contestants is not specified, although it is interesting that it proposes women as the subject of the action. An alternative that is all too common to the (re)taking of the voice by women (or by any person or subgroup) may be read in the expression “giving a voice to those who do not have it”, uttered from a position of power that, deep down, shows no wish to be handed over. James Clifford stated: “Time is past when privileged authorities could routinely ‘give voice’ (or history) to others without fear of contradiction”4.

Visual anthropology has been most attentive to the issues surrounding the expression “give voice”, as is reflected in the title of a key article by Jay Ruby: “Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside: An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma”. In it, we find the two sides of the coin. On the one hand, we read: “The documentary is assumed to give a «voice to the voiceless», that is, portray the political, social and economic realities of oppressed minorities and others previously denied access to the means of producing their own image. From this perspective, the documentary is not only an art form, it is a social service and a political act”5. But, on the other hand, he later explains: “it was assumed that the filmmakers were able to discover and report the truth about other people. Documentaries were understood as […] the official version of someone else’s reality. The people portrayed were regarded as not capable of speaking for themselves”6.

Ways of saying.

In mining society, and in its representation in the media, the separation marked by gender is obvious: the man is the one who “works in the mine”7; he is the visible part of the social-labour framework, while the work and voice of the woman are buried by male overrepresentation.

Writing about the emancipation of the subject, Alberto Santamaría says that the problem “is not in the saturation of images but in the elimination of the voice (and of the language). The other appears as a terrorist, as a victim, as an immigrant etc., it appears but its language has disappeared. This subject is enclosed under a label-image whose mission is to encapsulate and prevent any discourse whose purpose is the flight of this form of sensitive cataloguing”8. And he continues by quoting Rancière: “Workers’ emancipation begins with the possibility of constituting ways of saying, ways of seeing, ways of being that break with those that are imposed by the dominant system”.

Linked to this, and based on how the recording was organised, I proposed9 the idea of ​​using the image and soundtracks without synchronisation, assigning each a genre and a space: the images would be the ones recorded by the miners during the lock-in, underground, and the soundtrack would be formed basically by the women’s voices talking, on the surface. In a way, the social structure itself had suggested to us the formal device for developing the audiovisual project, a device that would work by situating the voices in a space that they had not occupied, the interior of the mine, but also in the space that grants visibility, or, more accurately, audibility. On the other hand, this formal decision also suggested, by not showing the bodies emitting the voices, that it was not just certain women who were the protagonists of the story, but that it extended to an entire community. 

Michel Chion talks about the magic and power of the acousmatic situation, when the source of sound is not seen on the screen. As long as the acousmatic voice does not fulfil a mere presenting or commentating function, it occupies “a specific place in the cinema, being on the screen without being on it”. The women, through the lodging of their voices in the images from the galleries, are also in the mine without being in it. What might produce a certain dissonance is that we know they are not there (a voice, right at the beginning of the film, makes it clear that women do not go down the mine), although at times it would seem that they were indeed there.

Serge Daney distinguished the offscreen voice, the one whose source is not seen and that runs parallel to the images without affecting them, as in the case in typical expository documentaries, from the onscreen voice, the one that does intervene in the image. This voice would affect the characters because they hear it. Here Daney is referring to classic cinema of fiction and characters. In the case of Puta mina, the voice does affect the image; in fact, it is introduced into the image although one might ask who the characters affected are. Could it be the mine itself that hears those voices? 

In November that year (2016), the first meetings organised by Laav_ took place. One was held in Ciñera under the motto: What does it mean to be a male or female miner today? First, we showed the film Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976) which, although it was produced very differently from ours and possessed a very clear individual authorship, clearly displays the voice of women miners. We then screened a short teaser assembled from the video and audio material that we had collected up to then. This was followed by a debate in which there was airing of different views, among them those of several women, including some that had been present at the start of the recordings. They confessed to missing the drama and emotion that they viewed as inherent in the story of mining, something they had seen in the American film. Although we noted a marked interest in continuing to speak from the emotional viewpoint with regard to mining accidents and the difficulty of life in the area, the group chose to continue the project in a search to find other stories and voices to add to those that were already known.

To continue the project, we decided to try to record further video material since, as we have mentioned, the footage recorded by the miners during the lock-in was of limited use. With the project evolving, we felt that the image track did not have to stick to a specific protest. Showing the inactive, empty mine also had much to do with what we wanted to recount, while also proposing a visual treatment that varied from most films about mines, in which work is at the heart of the whole image. We then contacted several watchmen who, with the company’s permission, undertook two more filming sessions that contributed less than an hour of new footage of a practically silent mine, in which only some dismantling work was taking place. Although they had been told that the soundtrack would be “occupied” by the dialogues of the women, and that it would be convenient to record a large part of the material in silence, practically all the sound line was occupied again by conversations between the miners. The need to tell the camera about the places and tasks in the mine can be related to the conversational habits among watchmen when they go through the galleries, by obligation in a group. However, it is also that the interests of the participants, male and female miners, have been different, together with awareness of the audiovisual process taking place. This represented a difficulty when trying to achieve, during montage, silent sound environments of the mine that could accommodate the women’s dialogues. This impossibility of combining the two types of voices, masculine and feminine, is not a merely technical matter; it clearly symbolises different narrative levels and makes it hard to combine the stories coming from the two, at least given the time available to carry out the project.

Identification with anyone’s voice.

After several months of dialogue collection, a major change occurred due to the fact that some of the Coal Women invited other female colleagues who were not part of the Ciñera environment. Other mining areas (mainly Laciana, also in the province of León), other voices, other stories and interests began to appear in the conversations. These displaced the narrative core from Ciñera to mining in general and even to the social struggles beyond mining, which also called into question the specificity of the area. This signified a point of friction in the development of the project as it led to doubts about issues that had been taken for granted and stirred up a terrain in which the initial group had felt comfortable. Politically, it suggested a shift in line with Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, when he stated that a political subject “is a collective of enunciation and manifestation that identifies its cause and its voice with those of anyone, with those of all of them who have no “right” to speak”10.

Furthermore, as the new members did not reside in Ciñera, some meetings were held in León, at the Department of Education and Cultural Action of the Contemporary Art Museum of Castilla y León (MUSAC) where Laav_ has its headquarters. Without planning to do so, we had created two groups of women, partially separated both geographically and in certain of their interests and views. Although we believe that every project has to evolve and welcome the unpredictable, even moments of conflict, there are twists in the projects that can sometimes represent a major obstacle to their development. If we were already questioning the relevance of the failure to have had more dialogue with the locked-in miners, who in the final analysis constituted a separate group, this new division of the main working group did not appear to favour the search for an integrated plural view. The solution to the problem was found in the montage, as detailed below.

By the end of the 15 recording sessions, spread over several months, we had collected many hours of dialogues. These were voices whose initial background had been the audio context of Ciñera’s cafés or school and in the final stage appeared in the more neutral environment of the MUSAC office.

Constructing a multiple voice.

In most of the experiences of Laav_ , we have concluded that the montage phase is when the film really grows. This is not only because this is where the script finally gets written, while the collected materials are being assembled, but also because it constitutes a meeting point for all the participants and among them, the images, sounds and ideas that, despite not having taken concrete shape, have hovered over the project more or less explicitly. This does not mean that previously the tasks of reflection and recording have not been intensive, but until this encounter takes place, it is very difficult for those involved, many of them neophytes in the field of audiovisual creation, to have any real awareness of the discursive and artistic power they have at their disposal.

In the case of Puta mina, this phase took place around the voices broadcast by two monitors and a recorder, which in turn documented the new dialogues generated by the listening and editing. This listening-recording device was active for some 20 sessions, and enabled, finally, a true meeting between the women of the above two groups. A dynamic mixed Ciñera-León core was formed, consisting of some 7 women (at this stage of the project’s development some participants had quit due to the commitment it required). These women strove to choose and place in a certain order the fragments of the conversations that would become part of the film.

The criteria for selecting fragments were connected of course with what was available but special value was afforded to moments of dialogue, dissent and even overlapping, while the voice was considered as an object that is full of connotations, with regard to the presence of different timbres, accents, volumes, voice breaks etc. As Marlene Schäfers says: “to understand the role of the voice in social life, it is imperative to study not only how voices routinely function as metaphors, but also their sonic, embodied and material dimensions”11.

In his analysis of Laav_12 , Miguel Ángel Bauxaulli writes with regard to Bakhtin’s Theory that “subjectivity itself is dialogic and builds its own voice but one that is always multiple, polyphonic, inhabited by many voices that engage in dialogue and compete with each other, the voices of the others that constitute its own”. Similarly, we might say that through the montage the voices were constructing a subjective, multiple voice of the mine, which would appear again as a character narrating itself.

In the process of editing dialogues, it is vital to try to respect their original meaning as much as possible. As the participants discovered during the process, this enables any discourse to be altered easily. Here, there is an increase in the capacity for “ventriloquism” possessed by ethnographic text and video although collective editing using one’s own materials is a good way of avoiding changing the discourse of others. On the one hand, there is multiple supervision of any action, and, on the other, in reality there are now no “other people”; the voices we edit are ours.

Perhaps the voices that are missing in the film are those of Laav_. As we mentioned above, in the recording sessions we decided to be observers or mediators. However, during editing, we played an active role, possibly as much as the rest of the participants. This participation appeared in the recording that was made during editing, and we thought of including it in the final production. However, in the end, due to the amount of material we had accumulated and the time available for it to be selected, we decided to use only the voices recorded prior to the audio montage.

The invisible world

The images and sounds of the mine still had to be edited. The montage of the dialogues took much longer than expected and the presentation of the film was immediately scheduled for the Second Laav_ Meetings (October 2017), a year after the teaser that had generated so much debate. This stage of editing should have been completed in just a few days and the group members were able to participate only on a few occasions.

It had been agreed that the faces of the miners would not be clearly seen as the aim was, just like with the voices, not to personalise, and thereby extend their image to that of “any miner”. According to the device that was proposed, there had to be no correspondence between images and dialogues, it was simply a case of uniting/colliding the conversations already selected with the images and sounds of the mine in a somewhat random manner, without seeking a descriptive discourse in the summation of images-voices. The shortage of images collected made the montage relatively quick.

The general arrangement and the form of montage, in which priority was given to the women’s voices, rather questions the approach of classic production, which usually considers images (and synchronous sounds with them, although these occupy a secondary position) as a starting point and articulating element. In our case, the montage of voices works as an essential axis, and the image-mantra was superimposed on it, like an infinite loop in the journey through similar galleries, an image that was sometimes missing, due to the mine’s darkness and because there is no longer anything to see. The film is situated in a strange territory, as the viewer soon begins to yield in the search for a clear meaning and a narration in the visual and indulges in the experience of aimless wandering led by voices that do not come from the image. Other sounds are also omnipresent, coming from the mine; these are synchronous with the images, and somehow enclose, contextualise or transport the sounds-voices. 

Audio work takes priority in the film, and here we agree with Isobel Anderson13 that “Sound takes the listener further into the unseen imaginary world of stories and that in some contexts, oral storytelling, rather than restricting the listener’s imagination, it can enable remarkably immersive and creative listening experiences.” In our case, the “invisible world” corresponds to the interior of the mine but also to many aspects of social context. Anderson mentions Brian W. Strum’s notion of “storylistening trance”, “the altered state of consciousness experienced when listening to stories”. And she uses the following quote from the latter: “… people who listen to stories can undergo a profound change in their experience of reality.” We believe this idea to be closely linked to what we understand by audiovisual anthropology, which we place in a space between art and knowledge that the viewer accesses through listening “with all of your body instead of from the outside with just your eyes”14. Although Anderson’s text is focused on sound art and site-specific performance, we believe it can be perfectly applicable to Puta mina. It is precisely the sounds, the voices, that expand what we see, the ones that unmask the place, the ones that release the ghost.

Justin Patch15 reminds us of the close relationship between sound and emotions, as well as the importance of an anthropology that is capable of gathering that relationship. “In the long shadow of interpretive or symbolic anthropology, the idea that social life is a text and can therefore be read and interpreted, has unknowingly prioritized the eye over the ear. However, frustrations with the limits of this approach have led anthropologists towards more poly-sensual ways of investigating and experiencing culture.”  For Patch “while the eye judges, the ear participates”. And later he talks about the “critical eye” against the “emotional (and irrational) ear”. As David MacDougall indicates, “cinema offers anthropology […] a mixture of embodied, synesthetic, narrative and metaphoric threads …” 16  

Voices that circulate.

The last stage was the audio mixing17, which defines how and where the viewer really perceives the sounds. Here, technological mediation is essential. Schäfers18 highlights the importance of paying attention to this mediation with regard to its influence on ideologies of the voice: “the voices are able to circulate separately from the (human) bodies that produce them. This ability throws up the question of how circulating voices ought to be matched to their origins. Ideologies of the voice determine what kinds of answers people will find to that question and where consequently they locate subjectivity and agency.”

The mix was aimed at giving priority to understanding the voices, which had been recorded mainly using a professional microphone, and which were cleaned up to improve legibility, while leaving enough residue to retain the space in which they had been generated so that they would not sound too neutral. Moreover, the sounds of the mine had been recorded by the miners using an amateur video camera, with automatic sound recording, and therefore with low quality (only one session used a professional sound recorder). This audio was filtered slightly for technical reasons, although it was not processed to try to get another sound. The environment picked up by the domestic camera accorded with the amateur aspect of the image; together they formed one of the film’s narrative levels. The other level superimposed was the women’s dialogues. 

The key issue with regard to the audio mixing was to relate those two narrative or sound levels: voices and noises, exterior and interior, creating through technology a new reality on interacting. It helped that the materiality of some spaces in which the dialogues were recorded (small interiors) could be confused with the materiality of some of the spaces in the mine. The pact that the viewer establishes with the proposal also helped to integrate those levels: situating the voices in the space that they have not physically occupied but that symbolically they have every right to inhabit.

The language.

The preview of the work took place during the second Laav_ meetings. It was shown at Ciñera’s Emilia cinema, which had been closed for years and was reopened specifically for the event. The screening drew quite a lot of people, mainly from the local population of the mining area.

At the conclusion of the film, a discussion began between the female miner-directors and the public. It was very significant to note at the end how the voice of some male miners invaded the theatre space and drowned out the voice of the women. These men said that there was “not as much machismo” as the film had depicted and that for them what we had shown was not the mine; it did not represent the mine as they had known it. The spectators in the front rows could perhaps hear the soft voice of one of the women who presented the film: “it’s just that you haven’t realised…”. Jacques Rancière wrote: “The reluctance to consider certain categories of people as political individuals has always had to do with the refusal to listen to the sounds that came out of their mouths as something intelligible”19.

While these lines were being written, a year has passed. The premiere of the film in its final version is scheduled for the third Laav_ meetings (November 2018) and it is also being shown at several festivals. At each of these screenings we will try to listen afterwards to see whether the film has opened any cracks in the wall aimed at separating the voices of the mine from language.


  1.  The author wishes to thank Belén Sola and Miguel Ángel Baixauli for their suggestions and contributions while preparing this text. Also, to all those who participated in the project, especially to the miner co-directors of the video Puta mina (2018): Laura Alonso, Raquel Balbuena, Mari Fernández, Áurea González, Cristina Turrado, Conchi Unanue and Mercedes Ordás. Finally, the conversations with Rafael Martínez del Pozo, who was in charge of mixing the audio for the video, have been essential in the writing of the section “Voices that circulate”.
  2. SCHÄFERS, MARLENE: «Voice», In the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Anthropology (eds) F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch. p. 6. Online at: [Most recently consulted on 3 November 2018]. It may not be coincidental that the research on the voice from the viewpoint of philosophy and anthropology, is largely conducted by women. Ricardo Piglia wrote in Formas Breves: “Simone Weil indicates the feminine voice as being opposed to the written tradition: the archive of the memory was built in the body of the woman contrary to the written tradition, which has been linked since its origins to the techniques of the State, to religious communication, to agrarian calculations. The female story (Scheherazade) resists the dictates of the king.”
  3. CHION, MICHEL: La voz en el cine, Cátedra, Madrid, 2014, p. 11-12.
  4. CLIFFORD, JAMES: Dilemas de la cultura, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2001, p 21.
  5. RUBY, JAY: «Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside-An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma», Visual Anthropology Review, Autumn 1991, Volume 7, Number 2. p. 51.
  6. RUBY, JAY: Óp. cit., p. 53.
  7. It is obvious that it could not even be said that women do not work in the mine, since if we understand by “mine” all the labour, social and cultural framework necessary for mineral extraction to work, women play an essential role. And as Laura says, who claims to be a miner at the beginning of the film that results from this process, women also go down the mine through the daily conversation they share with men.
  8. SANTAMARÍA, ALBERTO: Parodojas de lo cool. Arte, literatura, política, Textos (in)surgentes, Santander, 2016, p. 58.
  9. Although the project has been described as something that is plural and shared, it has been deemed appropriate at this point to highlight an individual contribution that, like others that may not be described in this text, has had a decisive influence on the development of the project. The tension between collaboration and other possibilities of collective creation is always present in this type of project, a subject that we will leave for a more detailed analysis in the future.
  10. RANCIÈRE JACQUES, Sobre políticas estéticas, Servei de Publicacions de la Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Barcelona, 2005 pp. 77-78.
  11. SCHÄFERS MARLENE: Óp. cit., p. 4.
  12. BAIXAULI, MIGUEL ÁNGEL: «Notas sobre, para y con el LAAV_», Laav, 2017. Online at: [Most recently consulted on 3 November 2018].
  13. ANDERSON ISOBEL: «Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to Stories». Online at: [Most recently consulted on 3 November 2018].
  14. ANDERSON ISOBEL, Óp. cit.
  15. PATCH JUSTIN: «Caught in the current: writing ethnography that listens». Online at: [Most recently consulted on 3 November 2018].
  16. MACDOUGALL, DAVID: Transcultural Cinema, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J., 1998. p. 83.
  17. Mixing sound by Rafael Martínez del Pozo dialogue with Chus Domínguez.
  18. SCHÄFERS MARLENE: Óp. cit., p. 8.
  19. RANCIÈRE JACQUES: Óp. cit., p. 14.