Before We Vanish by Zach Lewis Film

Good Luck | Ben Russell

April 6, 2018

Ben Russell, previously known for travelogues and semi-ethnographic hallucinatory trips, plays his latest feature straight: Good Luck is a good deal longer than most of his previous films, but only because his smoke and mirrors are replaced with steady extended shots of people at work and at play. Russell, then, joins other contemporary surveyors of the working day (Wang Bing, Kevin Jerome Everson, Harun Farocki). However, the subject here — the roots of capital — is nothing new for a filmmaker who has, in the past, documented anti-austerity protests and made almost a dozen films about French-Surinamese relations. Good Luck sticks to a structural format that is introduced, in the first shot, by an icon overlaying a lush Serbian landscape. The icon, a bifurcated circle, is reminiscent of a viewfinder (as if the audience has been brought location scouting with Russell), but its two halves also represent the film’s split time with Serbian miners and Surinamese gold panners. Both groups sing songs to pass the time, they both discuss their fears and hopes and family, and they both work tirelessly to extract the precious metals that have long formed the standard of modern capital.

Where an extended shot may work to build a spatial and temporal awareness in other films, though, Good Luck uses this as reinforcement for a joke: shoddy machines crank tirelessly alongside sweaty men and nothing is found—then, they try again. The title comes from the “good luck” or “no luck” dichotomy of the Surinamese workers, as there’s no particular skill involved in their occupation; finding gold in Suriname is a lot like finding capital in the developed West — either you got lucky or someone found it for you. There’s even a Surinamese song taunting Westerners to come pan for gold themselves, confident that “luck” reigns supreme and that any colonialists would have no better chance. Whether Russell is shooting his 16mm camera in the caves of Serbia (lit only by flashlights) or in the mud and bright sunsets of Suriname, the harsh continuing relationship of capital to labor is clear as water, bright as gold.

Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 4.