Some films glean artful pleasure from the pains of labor. One flourishing subgenre or strain of documentary tackles working conditions in countries across the world, highlighting the plight of the marginalized to make ends meet and maintain dignity in the face of unjust or extreme conditions. In a sense, Ghosts and Numbers and Luchando, two features at this year's San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, belong to this group, but they are most interesting for the ways that they differ from it, in content and style. Both movies highlight the precariousness of labor and favor a less direct and centralized consideration of employment's role in shaping an individual's existence.
Ghosts and Numbers and Luchando are like distant cousins; they are blood-bound by an integral interest in the working class, but they reside in different lands and possess divergent personalities. In fact, the title of each film suggests something about its filmmaker's approach to theme.
Alan Klima's Ghosts and Numbers is a bit cryptic, with a penchant for interweaving ostensibly unrelated elements. One may wonder what the relationship is between ghosts and numbers, but the more relevant inquiry relates to that between labor and modernity. Convictions and a critique can be discerned amid Klima's clever array of images and concerns, but no easy conclusions are reached.
Noelle Stout's Luchando, on the other hand, is more up-front and focused in its presentation of the titular subject matter. Of course, the title's meaning is obscure for non-Spanish speakers, and, even in Spanish, the term is slang instead of a standard word for people who get paid for having sex. But once the slang is understood (it is explained onscreen by one of the subjects), there is no uncertainty that Luchando is a clear and determined depiction of the lives of Cuban hustlers, without any overt class analysis.
These films share a relatively subtle sense of subversion. Klima's Thailand-set documentary presents the quagmires of modernization and shows compassion for its victims at a time when the more popular sentiment is to rally patriotically around the Asian country's entrance into the global community (and thus celebrate a preference for glistening urbania over a bucolic tradition). Klima observes lottery-ticket sellers as they discuss the vulnerable state of their occupation in the face of human-replacing technology and governmental limitations. Their earnest and desperate presence contrasts powerfully with other more reflective components and is part of an almost unsettling mixture of elements. Shots of unfinished Bangkok skyscrapers are matched with a voice-over concerning the Thai economy. Abstracted imagery is paired with stories of encounters with ghosts. Vérité-style footage is used for political protest and for a visit to a fortune-teller. At worst, these methods are a bit desultory, with some scenes in need of truncation. But aside from those moments, Ghosts and Numbers glimmers with a rare blend of mystery and humanity.
The humanity of Luchando is more intimate. Whereas Klima's film uses cinepoetic musings to break up its direct human engagement, Stout's presents pure portraiture though it is difficult not to succumb to awe before Havana's photogenic splendor. Stout surreptitiously captures the daily lives of four prostitutes, hesitantly heeding the warning of subjects when cops appear on the scene. These moments and bits of testimony give the sense that her subjects exist on the outskirts of safety, perpetually in a danger zone because of their gay identity or association. This is most poignant in the case of the transgender woman who is verbally assaulted as the film opens and later talks about being forced to dress as a man.