YIDFF 2005 New Asian Currents
Hammer and Flame
An Interview with Vaughan Pilikian (Director), Justin Meiland (Producer)

Opening a Window

Q: How did you get the idea to make a film about a ship breaking yard?

Justin Meiland (JM): About three years ago Green Peace did a big campaign against Alang, and it was quite big in the Indian and western media. We saw a couple of photos, and the images of the broken ships on this shore were just so striking, and we thought it would be great material for a film.

Q: Then, are the images what compelled you to make the film?

Vaughan Pilikian (VP): Mainly, yes. When you’re making a film, in some ways, you look for an image more than an idea. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has done some amazing large-format photographs of Chittagong, a ship breaking yard in Bangladesh. And I remember seeing these on the web, and thinking this is a fascinating place. And yes, that was the main impetus I think.

Q: Your film focused mostly on the workers.

VP: You don’t necessarily get this from the film, but there are a huge number of plots, which are rented out from the government by local business people who buy these ships as an investment. They beach the ship on the plot and use this pool of laborers, who mainly live in a nearby shantytown. If you had a very large ship, you might need 300 workers to break it down, so you would take on 300 workers just for that time.

JM: But, the western ship companies that sold the ships in the first place are out of the picture. They have no presence there whatsoever, no responsibility. It’s a big problem, because the ships have gases, so there are sometimes explosions, and there’s asbestos that poisons the workers. The big ship companies that originally had the ships think it is too expensive to make them perfectly safe for the workers, so they just sell the ship a year before it needs to be broken down. Then they turn a blind eye and claim “we’re perfectly safe and environmental.”

Q: The scenes where big chunks of the ship fall away are visually stunning, but the scene of the workers pounding away on little pipes really stuck in my mind.

VP: At first we were struck us by the panorama. But the longer we were there, we realized that the action was more interesting—the smallness against the bigness. We moved so much against the wide-screen approach that in the first edit, we had nothing of the big ships. You didn’t see the ships, and it was just the people.

Q: You chose to make this a ten-minute film in a very lyrical way. Why did you use this approach?

VP: The easy answer is that we were commissioned to do a ten-minute film. Initially we’d wanted to do a feature-length film.

The idea was to create a window opening onto something, and then closing again. So you sort of see it, and you don’t necessarily know what it is, even after ten minutes, but hopefully you are intrigued by it. Documentaries often tell you things, like the BBC, and we were very consciously moving against that. We wanted to do something that would be more like a feature film, about a mood or feeling, or sense of a place. And hopefully that brings you closer. On one hand, it’s a horrible, nasty, exploitative place, where people have these horrible jobs and are literally being slowly killed off by the fumes for no money, but in another sense, it’s a visually very amazing place, and there is something quite awesome about it at the same time.

(Compiled by Ann Yamamoto)

Interviewer: Ian Chun
Photography: Kato Hatsuyo / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2005-10-08