Through the Falcon’s Eye
Leo Goldsmith on Eugenio Polgovsky’s Trópico de Cáncer and Los herederos
There is a scene in the middle of Eugenio Polgovsky’s 2008 film Los herederos, a documentary about child laborers across rural Mexico, in which a young girl silently assists an older man in his workshop. Sitting at a loom that’s been assembled from a few bicycle wheels and an elaborate homemade pulley system, the girl cranks the machine to life, weaving threads into what will soon be a rug, probably sold to tourists. As the bicycle wheels rotate and the loom performs its mechanical function, another kind of weaving begins: the sound of a Wurlitzer band organ intrudes from nowhere on the soundtrack, matching the motions of the girl’s hand-cranking, as a series of quick dissolves take us back and forth from the girl’s face to those of several old women, their faces craggy with age. When the loom stops, so does the music; as the wheels roll backwards slightly, so does the organ. Elsewhere in the workshop, the hands of a clock tick in reverse.
While Polgovsky has worked as a cinematographer on a number of more commercial projects (including Gael García Bernal’s first film as a director, 2007’s Déficit), his career rests primarily on his two extraordinary documentary features—Los herederos and 2004’s Trópico de Cáncer—which have garnered him such awards as Best First Documentary from the Mexican Academy of Cinematography and the Joris Ivens Prize at Cinema du Réel (for Trópico de Cáncer), as well as funding from the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund and Switzerland’s Visions Sud Est. And he’s already had a premiere at the Venice Film Festival (for Los herederos), and a featured position at 2010’s Flaherty Seminar. Both of these works, while seemingly focused on the quotidian and the ethnographic, are also marked by strange intrusions like the time- and space-bending sequence of the girl at the loom, moments of bold, editorial interweaving that serve as punctuation in otherwise relentless portrayals of the working lives of Mexico’s rural poor. At an unflagging pace and a bracing sensorial intimacy, each of Polgovsky’s documentaries exploits the paradox of HD video: its mobility and immediacy and its seemingly endless plasticity.
With its emphatic claims to truth, documentary is an especially privileged, contentious form of cinema: its capacity to reproduce the world with some indeterminate measure of fidelity is never fully reassuring, always demanding that the spectator ask questions of the documentary construction (or else remain ignorantly trapped within it). But the extent to which what we see is selected, shaped, and translated by the filmmaker is the first—and too often the only—question we ask of documentaries. Steadily, this trend is being challenged across the international documentary landscape, which has become increasingly playful with forms and genre, fiction and nonfiction. This can create an awkward space for the viewer, especially one who believes that documentary’s duty is to educate or to effect change: it’s often remarkably difficult for audiences and critics of documentaries to accept that making a film is not necessarily a form of activism—and watching a film, even less so. Polgovsky’s works attempt to force these basic questions that have dogged the documentary form since (before) its inception: problems of perspective, of veracity and transparency, of insider/outsider positioning, and of the role—social, political, aesthetic, entertainment—of the documentary artifice.
Trópico de Cáncer is probably the more aggressive of his films in addressing these questions about the relationship between viewer, filmmaker, and subject, and it matches this aggressiveness with the similarly harsh and unforgiving quality of its sounds and imagery. Taking as its (largely tacit) subject the illegal trapping and sale of protected species in Charco Cercado, located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which falls along the titular circle of latitude (more recently the site of much drug- and gang-related violence), Polgovsky’s documentary rhymes the dry, brittle grain of its desert setting with an especially hard-edged and colorless video quality. Piercing sounds of bird cries and snake rattles are sustained throughout the film, but Polgovsky also contrasts the textures of the landscape with the occasional use of César Franck's cyclical Romantic organ music on the soundtrack. It’s an odd move that poses more questions than answers, functioning both as a cheeky juxtaposition of stately, civilized pomposity and hard-nosed reality, and as a genuinely mournful respite from pitiless nature.
Clocking in at a taut and unnerving fifty-two minutes, Trópico de Cáncer follows—with characteristically extreme close-ups and jagged handheld cinematography—the daily routines of those families who try to make a living through this rough, illegal work. Polgovsky’s films avoid more palliative, narrativizing strategies, like interviews or story-arcing, that tend to turn subjects into “characters” in more mainstream documentary work. Instead, we become familiar with the people in the film through their activities and only occasionally through their interactions: kids smash bottles with an impressive mastery of the slingshot (and a certain devilish giggle), then run off to kill desert rats, which are then skinned and fried up with onions for dinner; their fathers retrieve fledgling birds from cactus nests (while their full-grown parents circle helplessly overhead), and later free a few specimens that prospective buyers don’t want because they’re too noisy, enduring the claw- and beak-marks from the squawking birds in the process. Polgovsky’s camera is always thrust expressively right into the action, especially where animals (alive or dead) are concerned: caged rodents reach for the camera; a grounded red-tailed hawk, penned in a concrete enclosure, accepts a live baby rattlesnake for lunch; hissing, raptor-like vulture newborns open their throats to receive fingerfuls of gruel from their keepers.
Structured as Polgovsky’s documentary is around routine and procedure, it takes the film’s full length to see where these forms of labor are leading. The nasty rattlesnake sound that begins the film continues as the creature is trapped and brought home, where a woman cuts the snake from tail to mouth with a small pair of children’s scissors, then nimbly massages its gutted body into a flattened filet and hangs it to dry in the sun. It isn’t until the film’s final scene that one of these dry-flat rattlesnake hides, arrayed on a rack by the side of the road, is sold as a trinket for bourgeois tourists from more verdant suburbs who pass along the desert highway with an assaulting and incessant roar of traffic.
Another sly, dialectical intrusion: SUV-driving tourists stop to marvel at the desert curios and impoverished locals while buying whatever caged birds and rodents, enormous globular cacti and snake-skins strike their fancy. With supreme condescension, a fat guy opens his wallet and his water bottle. “I’m going to give you some water,” he says to a young boy. Then to his wife: “There’s no water here.” On cue, Polgovsky cuts to an infant lolling facedown in the dirt, blithely licking the sand while his family sits casually nearby unconcerned. As this scene progresses, and the trucks from the highway drone on, the montage becomes still more aggressive: a zoom takes us into and out of a falcon’s eye, with a shot of a rattlesnake in the middle; successive shots show us extreme close-ups of the cracks and crevices of a very elderly woman’s face; a half-glimpsed newspaper ad reads, “ELIMINATE YOUR MYOPIA.”
While not exactly a subtle indictment of class shortsightedness, this moment suggests the importance of the deliberately skewed and mercurial perspective in Polgovsky’s films and in documentary in general. With a sidelong glance he foregrounds a constantly shifting point of view: he is neither a missionary nor a tourist; he is neither pretending to be wholly immersed or embedded in his chosen milieu, nor claiming the authority to report on or anthropologize them. Polgovsky’s films thus stake out a territory somewhere between, and in dialogue with, ethnographic films and indigenous media, activist video and cinema vérité, the essayistic and the purely observational.
With Los herederos, Polgovsky turns his attention to children working under a variety of conditions in a number of locations across Mexico (Guerrero, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Puebla, Veracruz). Again, the camera is right in the epicenter of the activity—coursing in the wake of a plough as it grinds up earth for crops; trudging along misty mountain pathways behind a group of boys hauling wood and buckets of fresh water yoked across their backs; scrambling in the dirt of a factory farm to fill massive crates with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and jalapeños. Matching the relentless rhythms of the children’s arduous workday, the film employs agile crosscutting to follow a range of activity—farming, construction, domestic work—in a series of disparate spaces, and to form a loose sense of narrative through simultaneous processes. One particularly unnerving thread observes a boy’s hands in close-up as they intently carve a small piece of wood with a machete and a penknife. Polgovsky cuts back and forth to this, upping the suspense, and we brace ourselves for the inevitable moment when the boy will cut his finger. He does, of course, but blithely proceeds working the wood while bleeding on it, and then casually asks his infant brother to fetch some cellophane tape with which to bandage his wound.
This intimate, but oblique gaze renders the young subjects of the film—inheritors, as the title suggests, of their forebears’ lives of hard work and poverty—not as bathetic subjects of first-world pity and hand-wringing, but simply as kids, alternately tough, jolly, diligent, and unprotesting, whose social and economic conditions have made them grow up a little too quickly. Polgovsky’s film could easily strive harder to make us empathize with individual characters, or else lead us through the political complexities or full social consequences of an issue like child labor, but instead he takes an unstable middle road, enacting a more tactile engagement with his subjects and exploiting the extreme malleability of the video medium to keep us on our toes. Sensorially vivid, yet dialectical; driven by clear ideas, yet carefully (or cavalierly?) inscribed with the conditions of their own making (microphones intruding into the frame; lenses routinely blown with exhaust, caked with dust, spattered with water), Polgovsky’s films are a nest of contradictions, like the rich, thorny subjects he takes up.