There is a saying in China about the coal miners who go underground into the bowels of the earth to earn their living -- that they only become human again when they come back to the surface.
After watching NYU Journalism School graduate Yuanchen Liu's stark and unflinching debut documentary, To the Light at the recent Margaret Mead Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, it is not hard to see why China's miners feel that they have left the human world behind when they descend into their cramped coal tunnels for shifts of backbreaking labor that can last seven hours at a stretch.
The visually lyrical and heartbreaking film, which won the Mead's prestigious award this year for best in show, follows three miners both below and above the ground, and documents the price that they and their families have paid for their participation in what is arguably the world's deadliest profession.
Coal mining has always been dangerous. Scores die each year in mining accidents in the US. But this figure pales besides the estimated 20,000 people a year (according to the film) who perish in accidents in China's primitive mines. The government's official numbers are lower, but independent observers like Robin Munro, a human-rights activist at the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, say that the true toll is routinely under-reported by mine owners and provincial officials who often have a personal financial stake in these lucrative operations and the prosperity they bring to the rural communities where the mines are located.
These mortality statistics do not include deaths from black lung and other pulmonary diseases, which also claim untold tens of thousands of victims per year. In Liu's film, the miners venture underground without protective masks. China's mines suffer from inadequate ventilation systems, and Liu told me that dangerous coal dust sparkles like fireflies in the light from the miner's helmets. They use old fashioned pick axes instead of jackhammers, and crouch or lie down in three foot high side tunnels for hours at a stretch, hacking away at the rock faces.
The central government does not lack safety regulations on the books. In practice, however, these rules are often ignored in the rush to get more coal out of the ground. Coal use in China is increasing at a staggering ten percent a year to fuel its industrial boom. Over 70 percent of China's energy is generated by coal-fueled power plants with two to three new plants going online every week.
Chinese authorities have threatened to stop production in illegal and hazardous mines and to blow them up, but little has been done to back up these threats. On occasion, mine owners are fined or jailed for violating the rules. But the central government in Beijing has little sway in many of the far flung areas of the country where the over 17 thousand underground mines are located.
Oil-poor China is the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, whose gritty smoke casts a pall over the country's urban areas, in many of which the air quality ranks amongst the world's worst. China, which surpassed the US earlier this year as the globe's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has taken some steps in recent years to curb industrial pollution, but its growing dependence on coal may doom these efforts to fail, barring a massive and costly conversion to alternative energy sources in the years ahead.
By juxtaposing footage of miners hacking away at rock with dazzling images of Shanghai's night lights, the filmmaker links China's "economic miracle" with the troglodyte existence of the men and women who have made it possible.
Liu told me:
"When people look at these lights, they don't know what is behind them and who is paying for them, and what the price really is. Everywhere in rural China poor people, who can no longer sustain themselves as farmers, rush to coal mines, where wages are about equal (7 to 12 dollars a day) to what they would be paid in factories in the big cities. But in the cities, workers have a rough life and get cut off from their families and homes, so they prefer to stay in their village and work in the mines. Sometimes three generations in one family have worked the same mine."
And many of these families have been shattered by coal mining tragedies over the years. In the film, we see a young miner, Luo, who was paralyzed in an accident, being fed and his bedsores washed by his bitter and exhausted wife. Luo was working in the mine to pay off a huge fine imposed on him for having a second child in violation of China's one-child-policy.
In the most chilling scene of all, a miner works an underground coal seam as a time display on the screen counts down the minutes left in his life. Incredibly, the filmmaker -- who had a chilling premonition of this disaster the day he went into the mine -- shot the scene just moments before the worker was crushed by the collapse of the mine wall.
When I asked him why the owner had allowed him to record conditions underground, the filmmaker said that, ironically, it was in order to boast of the safety in his mine, whose record had, until then, been better than most.
Liu, a Chinese citizen living in New York, hopes the film will be seen by his fellow countrymen, so that they can be made aware of "the problems behind the glittering surface of China's massive industrialization." While there is little chance the government will allow To the Light to be publicly shown in China, Liu hopes some DVDs will make it into the country for private viewings. He is also looking for ways to post it on the internet and social media, where China's technologically savvy young can watch it.
In the meantime, To the Light will be screened at selected locations around the U.S. and Canada when the Mead Festival goes on tour early next year. It is distributed by Shearwater Films, and is a must see for anyone who wants to find out what is going on below the dazzling, high-tech surface of modern China.