Watch ’12 Years a Slave’ Director Steve McQueen’s 2002 South Africa Mining Film ‘Western Deep’

By  · Published on October 20th, 2013

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Before he started making features, like his new release 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen was a celebrated visual artist known primarily for film installations. His “short start” was 20 years ago with a 10-minute work called Bear, in which he and another black man wrestled in the nude. After that, he made the shorts Five Easy Pieces (1995), Just Above My Head (1996), Exodus (1997) and Deadpan (1997), the last of which involved a recreation of Buster Keaton’s famous falling house facade stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr. You can see an excerpt of that film, with McQueen pulling off the dangerous bit himself, here.

While many of his shorts can be seen in the occasional museum exhibit, most are otherwise pretty rare. Meaning not available to be viewed online. There are, however, a few instances of incomplete cellphone captures of his films from their installation projections. You can see parts of Girls, Tricky (2001), the 9/11-inspired Illuminer (2002) and Static (2009), which was made following his feature debut, Hunger. Others, including Charlotte (2004), featuring just an enlargement of Charlotte Rampling’s eye, and Caribs’ Leap (2002), are only to be seen in stills. Interestingly, the latter is typically screened as a companion to the only film found in full on the web, Western Deep.

This streamable 24-minute work was shot on Super 8 in the TauTona gold mine of South Africa (aka “Western Deep No. 3”), notable for being the deepest in the world (more than two miles down). It’s a good film to watch after 12 Years a Slave because it deals with matters akin to slavery in America. At least when the film was released, TauTona was said to be owned by the same company as in apartheid times and still run pretty much the same way with its all-black miners (the company merged with another in 2004, so I can’t be sure things haven’t changed since). I got the feeling that the people seen in this film aren’t regularly treated like human beings.

But Western Deep is an artistic, narrative-free documentary, a film that would fit well with the stuff coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, Manakamana). Much of it (including the beginning) consists of a black screen because it was too dark to capture anything but sound in parts of the mine. Other times we see clearer images but the sound is cut out. Yet the most disorienting part is when we get both picture and sound and it’s a regimental exercise routine during which the miners are subjected to a repeated alarm alerting them to move up and down in place. After sharing in the experiences of claustrophobia and confusion, it’s especially an irritating but affective transition.

Five years after Western Deep, McQueen made another mining film called Gravesend, this one documenting the extraction of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo, significant for being necessary to most of the electronics we in the West use every minute of our lives. Of all his shorts, that’s the one I’d most like to see show up online, not just to compare with the film below but also because it sounds like his most politically important, regardless of how avant-garde it is. Maybe eventually that and others can make their way to the web – for those that require multiple screens there should be a way to achieve the needed exhibition effects. For now, just watch Western Deep below via Ubu.com.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.