Kirsten Strayer December 22 2018

Mineral Motifs: Labor, time, extraction


When thinking about the power and scope of minerals--those natural elements that do everything from keep us healthy to power our iPhones--it may be productive to think of them primarily as finite resources. As resource consumption expands, human society finds itself on a precipice—balanced on a contemporary society created and maintained through non-renewable resources but aware that Earth's hospitable environment may not survive the process of using and extracting those resources. Resource extraction is dangerous and environmentally disastrous process, but it also appears to be an inextricable part of modern life and contemporary capitalist practices.

The films in this Spotlight show the labor, time, and environmental degradation that goes along with mineral extraction, asking their audiences what do we win and lose when we dig into the earth.

Experimental shorts Metamorphism (2016) and Kaltes Tal (2016) both speak to the struggle between finite resources and unfettered capitalism that dominates 21st-century life. In Metamorphism, artists Grayson Cooke and Dugal McKinnon combine tight, close-up shots of slag waste from an Australian Copper mine with ethereal, atonal instrumental music. Seemingly (at first) a close-up examination of the distant beauty of mineral excess, the final rapid cuts and increasingly tense music speak to the shifts of time under the umbrella of capitalism, pointing to how we draw more from our environment at a quicker pace.

Metamorphism (2016)

Kaltes Tal, on the other hand, shows the potential folly (or at least the peculiarity) of using excavation to help mediate environmental damage caused by mineral excavation. Filmmakers Johannes Knell and Florian Fischer show the process of extracting lime or to produce a lime dusting powder which, when spread across a forest floor, helps to reduce its acidity and, therefore, the amount of acid rain that falls there. On the one hand, the lime processing and the dusted forest look both natural and gorgeous, with the dusted forest taken on the appearance of ethereal snowy woodland. However, the violence of excavation, and the unnatural state of this natural beauty speaks to the radical hand of human intervention that tries to use engineered processes to stop the damage caused by industrialization. In particular, the film’s use of sound (and lack of) positions nature’s destruction as not natural but the fault of human intervention.

Kaltes Tal (2016)

The documentary short “Born into Coal,” a chapter from a larger documentary anthology about coal in the U.S., visually juxtaposes coal and its extraction with the human cost of contemporary coal mining practices. Filmed after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine (ran by Massey Energy, which would later be held liable for the disaster), “Born into Coal” tells the story of one miner who survived the explosion, as well as the daughter of another coal miner competing for the crown in the “Miss West Virginia Coal Festival.” Like other films about the contradictions of mineral extraction, “Born into Coal” uses surreal contrast to emphasize the absurdity of an industry that slaughters the people it employs. Young women stand in evening gowns in a decrepit gym, a man eats at his wife’s dinner table entirely covered in coal, and a beauty pageant winner stands in front of an open mine in her sash and tiara, swearing to fight for coal even as she also studies how to rescue her father in case of a disaster. 

Born into Coal (2011)

In the sci-fi short Prospect, the idea of the expansion of unending excavation of natural resources takes on a science fiction dimension as mineral prospecting leaves the Earth for other worlds. In the story, a father-daughter pair tries to get rich through resource excavation on another planet. Like the previous centuries on Earth, however, the drive for resource excavation is matched by violence and destruction. Like “Born into Coal,” Prospect seeks to make the building blocks of modern life visible. The man-made objects that make contemporary life easy also have a high body count and Prospect assumes that this capitalist exploitation of workers will continue even as we expand into space.

Prospect (2014)

Finally, in Gasline (Dave Silver, 2001), the student film which won Sundance’s short film award in 2002, points out the emotional, ethical, and moral toll that the lack of mineral resources can bring. Gasline shows a day in the life of a gas station owner in New Jersey during the 1970s gas shortage that caused long lines and scarcities all over America. As Ben tries to juggle shifty employees, a surly wife, and potential affair, his most pressing issues is how to find gas when every distributor is overbooked. For Ben, an ever-present supply of gas is his store’s only way of remaining solvent. Reliant on consumer’s need for gas, Ben (and everyone else) forgets about how it functions—as a radical source of unbridled energy. In parallel scenes, Gasline both chips away and underscores late 20thCentury America’s need to forget about the natural resource that fuels its society.  

Gasline (2001)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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