November 28, 2008 / 6:33 PM / 10 years ago

Film shows awe and agony of ship breaking world

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Ship breaking yards in Bangladesh where huge ocean-going vessels are dismantled at the end of their lives are the source of awe and empathy in a new documentary film that explores the plight of yard workers.

In Yasmine Kabir’s “The Last Rites,” the Bangladeshi director seeks to portray the fascination she felt when she first visited the shipyards in her hometown of Chittagong, and the feeling that she had entered into another reality, a city of ships.

“When I first saw the yards, it was like I had a glimpse of the underworld described in mythology where people are banished to hard labor,” Kabir said during an interview at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam.

The short film shows the back-breaking work of laborers as they take the towering ships apart, sawing off propeller fins, pulling out cables, stacking up piles of old furniture and appliances, preparing to sell off or recycle everything.

“The men were doing the work of machines,” Kabir said, adding that Bangladesh is a popular graveyard for old ships to be dismantled, due to the cheap labor and relatively lax environmental laws that exist there.

Between 200 and 600 large ships are taken apart for their valuable scrap metal every year and most of those removed from service in Europe end up being broken up on beaches in South Asia, the European Union said this month, calling for improved safety measures to reduce accident rates and pollution.

The demolition takes place mainly in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, providing thousands of jobs. Health and safety conditions are poor, however, as laborers work on vessels containing hazardous materials such as asbestos.

In Kabir’s film, men and boys are seen wading through oil sludge, touching toxic substances with their bare arms and legs and cutting and carrying huge sections of metal plates with no protective gear.

“The film is a plea to clear ships of hazardous substances before sending them to poor countries,” Kabir said.

The International Maritime Organization is preparing a globally binding convention to provide comprehensive control and enforcement on safe ship recycling.

While empathizing with the plight of the workers, Kabir said she also wanted to capture the mythical atmosphere of the yards where the gigantic vessels go to die.

“The men were like pallbearers carrying the steel plates.” she said. “The impression I got was that I had witnessed a funeral.”

Reporting by Catherine Hornby, editing by Paul Casciato

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