IN THE PIT (Juan Carlos Rulfo, 2006)

The occasion for Mexico’s En el hoyo (In the Pit) is the construction of the second deck of the Periférico Freeway in Mexico City, 2003-2005. Largely comprising interviews of construction workers, from Mexico’s struggling underclass, involved in the project, Juan Carlos Rulfo’s magnificent film won the top prize in any category at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema and the top documentary prize at Sundance. It is an ironical documentary; it devilishly cuts its theme, using various forms of irony including blatant sarcasm, out of the fabric of workers working together toward a common goal. It may therefore appear to belong among such documentaries as Joris Ivens’s The New Earth (1934) and Karl G. Heider’s Dani Houses (1973), but in reality, if one attends to its subversive inclination and strategies, it should be grouped instead with such documentaries as Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice (1929) from France and Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdas—Land Without Bread (1932) from Spain. It isn’t as brilliant as either of those classics, but what an excoriation it is of common shibboleths and myths!

Rulfo signals an almost mocking intent from the get-go, with the first bit of voiceover announcing a fairy tale or fable (“Once upon a time . . .”), a genre much at odds with a chronicle of productive labor. Unless I am misremembering, this precedes the opening credits. In the same vein is what we are shown after the closing credits. Critic Nora Lee Mandel writes at Film-Forward.com:

[The Periférico Freeway] construction project is exactly the kind of traffic-generating endeavor environmentalists have fought against in the U.S. and stopped, such as the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. The final . . . features the Mexico City subway, perhaps implying that is what should be expanded instead of the highway.

Mandel expresses herself modestly and tentatively; but the film more or less takes away what it has given us in the way of noble labor or a sterling massive effort toward a noble end. Indeed, it leaves the expansion unfinished, ironically withholding from the material the salutary effect of an anticipated and seemingly obligatory shot of its completion; a long aerial shot begins with the completed part but then passes into the disarray of unfinished construction: with its rapid roller-coaster effect (for us the audience), a shot of devastating wit. Along the way, moreover, one of the interviewed workers makes an on-the-mark remark to the effect that one can get used to anything, except work. Rulfo’s film is full of such surprises and reversals of expectation.

In terms of its huge employment bonanza, Rulfo portrays the construction project as a desperate event, not a noble one. Numerous shots facing downwards, with a gaping depth of space below the men at work, reiterate the constant danger to the men. “Aren’t you afraid?” at one point Rulfo asks, and the worker he is interviewing responds, “I am more afraid of not eating on Saturday.” The worker chuckles as he says this, but he repeats the remark, chuckling again, and Rulfo’s including the repetition has the effect of erasing the lightheartedness by underscoring its bravado. The implication that the man’s labor may be paying for only one good meal for him a week, on Saturday, adds to the negative impact of the remark. Opening and nearly closing the film are headlong shots into the ground-level construction pit, into which, at the last, a worker has fallen, breaking his bones. (I was reminded of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 Woman of the Dunes.) Editing and commentary suggest that he was one of the project’s “inevitable” fatalities, suggesting a linkage of such “sacrifices” over time. A worker, earlier, asks, “You break your back, and who gets the glory?” We answer this ourselves: politicians, perhaps the architect, but surely not the workers who built the deck. Indeed, the 330-second aerial shot of the finished and unfinished parts of the construction, because of the multitude of anonymous workers that we see being rapidly passed by, contains the bitter irony that the project’s completion will mean at least a temporary end to all these people’s paid work. This returns us to the dangerous nature of that work. Most would not choose such dangerous work if there were alternatives.

There are in the film exactly two shots of a worker captured against an implicitly eternal sky—the sort of shot that in Soviet silents ennobles a worker and his or her labor. Here, the two shots are quick, and they even seem to be the same shot. Two things principally undercut our automatic response. One is the fact that this worker, unlike those in the Soviet films, isn’t on the ground, the Communist-sanctified earth; here, the man’s feet are on perilously high-up rigging. The other is the commentary that overlaps with the image; a worker is professing his belief in the existence of God. The remarks become increasingly tenuous and vaporous as the man goes on, and the combination of this voiceover and the seemingly exalted image (the vast sky is a gorgeous blue) has a curious outcome. Our minds shift to a consideration of the unhappiness and dangers, as well as the beauty of the heavens, that moved humanity to invent the idea of God in the first place, thereby vacating our contemplation of the nobility of work. Rulfo uses his materials to sharp and cunning effect.

Rulfo isn’t infallible in this regard. The same religious “Shorty”—all the men have been given nicknames by their co-workers, a poignant sign of the transience of their community—is used badly in one sequence of shots. Shorty, who is unmarried, professes his lack of interest in marriage; but we see the loneliness, the ache for companionship, behind his words. Rulfo is wonderful here; he simply lets the man talk and reveal himself. But then Rulfo switches to another worker, one who genially details the bruisings he has given his wife on different occasions. This material is fine, too, insofar as it suggests both the stress that an economically fragile existence imposes on people and one of the possible outcomes of such stress, especially in a society and culture grounded in machismo. But then Rulfo does a wrong thing. He cuts back to Shorty, who is teary-eyed. The implication is this: Life is unfair when a brute can be a spouse and peaceable, gentle Shorty—who later takes in stride having his face pushed into his birthday cake—is all alone. What manipulation of us! I object to the editing of these disparate materials on at least two grounds. One, the man’s revelation of beating his wife ought not to be set-up for anything involving any of the other workers. It is gross insensitivity to the woman’s plight that our attention is thus jerked from what she is suffering to what pathetic Shorty is presumably suffering. Also, I don’t have any idea whether Shorty would make someone a good husband, and neither does Rulfo. His presumption yields the false and sentimental result that it does.

In the main, however, In the Pit is a splendid piece of work—a testament to the resourcefulness of Rulfo’s high-definition video camera(s). It is full of engaging and interesting things, such as the frequent lopsided framing of workers’ faces in closeup, which adds to the film’s ironical air, the cacophonous metal sounds of construction (monstrous here, along with the corresponding imagery, like the industrial sights and sounds in Robert J. Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story—not the celebratory tack of Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Enthusiasm), and the filmed (35mm) inserts with their time-lapsed, speeded-up motion of cars or workers at work. This stunning abstraction of the latter is correlative to the absorption of people’s humanity, as Rulfo sees it, by two opposite things: their hard, dangerous labor; their constant worry of unemployment and whether, and when, the next job will come. (One man, who bares and sells false teeth, explains that one must invent work in order to survive.) Indeed, the diffuse nature of much of the film until that astoundingly pulling-together aerial shot beautifully reflects the loose-endedness of the workers’ lives.

Released by Kino, In the Pit should eventually make it to DVD. But let me tell you, nothing but a movie theater-sized screen can do justice to that sweeping aerial shot. Prepare for your jaw to drop.

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