Not a word is said from off-screen/behind the camera. No opinion voiced. No question asked. The filmed subjects are allowed to be completely free and natural, point of view is only presented through raw footage and editing. This is essentially a drama masquerading as a documentary, except that characters are not portrayed by actors, and there is no script, no lines to learn, no direction, no rehearsal. They are simply playing themselves, going about their normal lives and carrying out their daily work in front of the camera. A director that insists on such approach needs even greater confidence, not worrying about whether others will understand – trusting that the natural dialogue and actions of the subjects can express all that is needed. As there are no questions asked and no responses given, the audience must use more of their imagination to figure out the context. Jade Miners is indeed such an “absolute” documentary, one that gives more freedom to its subjects and viewers to express themselves.
The film begins in pitch darkness. A gentle glow amid the dark brings to life the cave-dwelling existence of the jade miners: brushing their teeth, washing their faces, lighting fires, boiling water, burning incense – everything is self-contained and natural. The complexity of the outside world is only hinted at when the headlight of a motorbike shining down into the mine tunnel entrance connects to the bright and spacious sky above. Once the camera turns to the ground, the repetitive nature of a jade miner’s life emerges: digging, eating, sleeping, digging…merges over and over in a cumbersome cycle. Their only entertainment is television and radio. When they eventually reappear in sunlight they seem energetic and lively, sometimes even with a smile. The majority of these Myanmar workers are lean and young, around 30 years old. They bade farewell to their wives and children to live in the mines, dreaming of the day when they can dig up a jade gemstone that would help them escape poverty, or perhaps even bring them wealth. Despite families to feed, debts to repay and rent to fork out – and despite the risk of death from a mine collapse – these miners do not appear to be despondent or grumble; they even seem at ease with themselves. They fill their stomachs out of pure necessity – all their strength is used to tackle poverty; they do not have the time or energy to complain about their circumstances. There are numerous people in the world leading such lives, boldly and assuredly, without feeling the need for sympathy or understanding from the outside world. The desire of an outsider to document and explore their lives does not concern them.
In this masculine world of hard labor, it is as though women, children and families do not exist. It is only when the miners borrow mobile phones to report to their wives and children that the existence of a comparatively stable and safe world is implied. A casual conversation reveals why so many farmers have turned to mining: even a fruitful harvest is insufficient to pay the rent and their children’s school fees, or to buy a computer. These fathers risk their lives in the mines in the hope of carving out a better future for their children. Changing their children’s fate also means changing their own. It is an arduous path out of poverty that Taiwan was all too familiar with. But these jade miners are genuinely gambling with their lives in the remote, desolate mines. When trapped in poverty, their bodies is their currency. People with nothing have nothing to lose; only by braving danger can they find a way out.
The filming process amassed more than 800 hours of raw footage over 14 months. While one might expect a wealth of dramatic scenes in the film, the director Midi Z moved in another direction: “After staying there for quite some time, I started to get accustomed to the drama…I forced myself to return to the essence of the film’s story, to think from an objective perspective. Many subjective emotions one might feel in the moment are not always accurate.” The director hence made a conscious decision to move away from the dramatic moments and return to the banality of life, aiming to closely observe the monotony of working in the mines and to capture the resolute attitudes of the jade miners who increasingly manifest their toughness in the face of adversity as well as their will and their dignity. The film does not unveil the hidden dangers lurking in their daily lives until towards the end. With the miners coping with the risk of being buried alive at any moment, danger becomes an ever-present routine. The director does not intentionally inflate the dramatic tension generated through the scene of an accident. The camera is fixed above, at a height and distance that most people cannot reach, silently witnessing life and death from afar. But through observing the miners' struggle for survival, the audience comes to better understanding of the unifying factors behind poverty: tyranny, corruption, war, markets, and transnational corporations – poor countries have all suffered the same fate.
Myanmar-born Taiwanese director Midi Z has been closely following the shifting landscape of the country he left as a teenager, and in particular the plight of marginalized ethnic minorities since he met local filmmakers early in 2006. A co-production between Taiwan’s Seashore Image Productions and Myanmar Montage Film, Jade Miners is a documentary that had to circumvent government restrictions and intervention to get made. Apart from supporting local filmmakers with the lifting of censorship, this mutually beneficial collaboration also helps Taiwan better understand Myanmar. Taiwan has long looked to the West and Northeast Asia while largely ignoring Southeast Asia. This condescension has restricted Taiwan’s vision and neglected the fact that around a quarter of its 640,000 new residents come from Southeast Asia. Condescension breeds ignorance; ignorance breeds arrogance and diminishes empathy. When Taiwanese turn their eyes to the South, they adjust their perspective to see a completely different side of the world.
(Translated by Howard SHIH)