Hell at the Ocean's Edge

By Vaughan Pilikian

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The shipbreaking yards of India are explored in an award-winning documentary


Vaughan Pilikian and Justin Meiland’s film about the shipbreaking yards of India, Hammer and Flame, was made in 2005 for Screen South and the UK Film Council. Last year it won the award for Best Film at Malescorto in Italy and the Golden Apricot for Best Documentary at the Yerevan International Film Festival, Armenia, and it has just been nominated for a Grierson Award. The following is an account of the experience of making the film:

Smoke everywhere. Scraping down your throat like swallowed tar then grinding through your lungs until you’re gagging to breathe. We’re trying to follow the men as they carry the steel plates they’ve cut off the ship’s hull up the beach but the pocked ground, heaped junk and vicious tangle of lines from the blowtorches snagging the cameraman’s feet are making it nearly impossible. The heat is appalling, and our sound recordist, valiantly trying to make sense of the chaos of clang and roar coming from all around us, complains that his microphones are starting to melt. We make our way back to the gate along the avenues of jagged metal as if from emerging from the sacrificial grounds of some Baal for the late machine era.

Indeed, it is Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, who is worshipped at the tiny, blood-red temple to which the workers in Alang adjourn as the day slides suddenly into evening. The rites here have a disturbing atmosphere, performed to a dark and subterranean throb of bells very unlike the dulcet chorus of a typical puja. Whatever the nature of the forces that brought Alang into being, they are to be appeased rather than thanked for what they have done.

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For the better part of two decades the majority of the world’s ships, born in the ports of the West, have come to this place on the coast of northern India to die. They are harvested for their steel, but breaking these monstrous things down is a dirty business and the expertise and equipment needed to do it properly do not come cheap. This is one reason why most of the world’s shipbreaking travelled south during the eighties. In many senses the ultimate ‘globalised economy,’ the shipping industry is notorious for its lack of regulation, and there is little will to control what is termed with unironic aptness the ‘export’ of hazardous waste from rich countries to places where environmental and human health concerns can more effectively be ignored.

There are no heavy-duty lifting mechanisms, no laser cutters and no decontamination areas in Alang. There are hammers and blowtorches and bare hands, all attached to a few thousand young and largely male migrant workers from the poorer states of India. They take up cramped dormitory beds in a shantytown assembled from slats pulled from the walls of the mess halls of scrapped merchant vessels or from the cabins of old fishing boats. They have come here because, despite what the environmentalists and health workers say about their life expectancy, and despite the fact that it may seem like a vanishingly small livelihood, they can nonetheless earn a wage and save some money for the families they have left behind.

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Alang is a beach so long and so shallow that mile upon mile of what may once have been sand are revealed and concealed each day by the tide’s ebb and flow. A writer and publisher we had met, the grandson of famous Gujarati poet Jhaverchand Meghani, told us that he could remember when it had been a paradise of yellow and azure. As we stood one low tide at the top of one of the larger plots looking out across the umber-coloured ground of grey pebbles and toxic mulch salted with polystyrene, fibreglass and chunks of asbestos, it was hard to picture what he had described. A three-hundred-foot tanker that had been beached two weeks before stood at the plot awaiting its evisceration, a bleak and awesome monolith set against the hazy sky. The rigid spine of its keel touched the beach only at bow and stern with the rest of its great bulk levitating queasily above a gap through which the late afternoon waves could be seen rolling sluggishly into shore.

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We watched the tiny silhouettes of workers high on the deck above us. A pinprick of orange light about halfway down the hull was moving inch by inch towards the faraway stern of the ship. Following its course back towards the bow, it was possible to make out a long blackened line where the blowtorch had made its way through the steel. It was clear that some worker hidden within had been steadily making this determined incision, and that it would be some time yet before he reached his destination. But as we turned to go back up the beach the sound of groaning metal tore the air. The cutter’s action had released the immense stresses that were keeping the tanker on its awkward perch.

Suddenly it was if the ship had been painted on a backcloth rippled by a gust of air, and the whole thing shuddered along its length and then fissured down its middle, dropping several meters to close the gap beneath its keel. The men on deck threw out their arms like tightrope walkers and rode the thing down as it pitched and shook and just as abruptly came to rest. They paused briefly, lowered their arms, then continued as if nothing had happened. The foreman showing us around saw the astonishment on our faces and smiled, amused by the effect such an everyday event at Alang could have on a couple of strangers.

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When we arrived at Alang, activity was much diminished from its more intense period during the mid-nineties. The price of steel had been dropping over previous months, and many of the buyers had gone out of business. The place was also suffering from the negative publicity sent its way by Greenpeace and other environmental groups. All of this meant that the owners of the ships were jumpy about the presence of filmmakers like ourselves. There were three plots towards the end of the strip to which we were drawn because of the scale, brute energy and seemingly improvised nature of the work that was being done there. Some huge ships were being dismantled in these plots, each carved up like an enormous loaf of bread, pieces sliced off one by one and sent crashing down in a haze of dust and sea-spray. These pieces were then hauled up the beaches either by winches or by men pulling on cables in an insane tug of war with the inanimate that they could only ever win momentarily. The same breaker who ran these yards rented a stretch of wasteland on the opposite side of the service road where the second stage of deconstruction would be carried out in some of the most dismal conditions we witnessed.

Here was a kind of inferno, a place of searing heat wreathed in blue fume where the jagged metal skeletons dumped from the yard over the road were worked in a strange mode of reverse industrial sculpture. A few of the men had wrapped thin cotton scarves about their faces and wore old welding goggles like smoked flying glasses. Many had no protection at all. All of them stood or squatted in static poses as if mesmerised by the glow of the blowtorches’ flames or more likely deep in a trance induced by the toxins on the air, the tools in their hands like metal prostheses, each spouting a flame that moved with painful slowness across whatever mangled and pointless tessellation of the whole crazed and exploded design lay before them.

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Elsewhere and through a screen of smog groups of men wound in a measured pace among the metal hinges, blocks of black steel on their shoulders like coffins. We passed a circle of men standing silently around a crankshaft the size of a tree trunk, perhaps something that had once driven one of the huge propellers lying discarded further down the beach. They watched absorbed as two of their number took turns to send hammer blows onto the butt of a chisel held between a pair of pliers by another man crouching on the crankshaft between them. With each blow the chisel would fly up, but almost instantaneously and with total calm the man holding it would replace it with a delicate click back into the groove that they had been working. It was difficult to conceive of how long they had been there or how long they intended to stay, whether nightfall or fatigue or something else would bring their utterly fruitless task to an end.

All manner of chemical offspill filled the terrain around us. On top of a tall pile of thick metal sheeting caked in white snowflakes of asbestos, two other workers raised long axes, and in a metronomic rhythm brought them down one after another onto the impervious surface beneath them with a bone-chilling but ineffectual crack. Each knock sent the soft and deadly down into the air around their heads. There was something terrible and unreal about the scene. Watching them I felt as if I was in a dream in which these two men were figments, lost in a sort of paroxysm of destruction where all aim and rationale had died and in their place remained only a series of interminable and meaningless gestures. The yard’s tenant, a large and well-fed man, came running down the beach towards us, a giant among the wasted frames of his employees. His hand went up before the camera’s lens. The government official who was with us tried to placate him by holding out our letter that bore the validating stamp of the Maritime Board’s chairman. The breaker looked at the civil servant waving the piece of paper and anger seethed in his eyes. ‘I am disappointed in you,’ he said. ‘That you have so little love for your country you will let foreigners see all this.’


Vaughan Pilikian is a writer and filmmaker. He lives in London.

Images by Justin Meiland / Unruowe 2005

Hammer and Flame will be shown in the launch event for this edition of Vertigo at London’s Curzon Soho Cinema, Friday 17th November (www.curzoncinemas.com).