A couple of nights ago I went to a press screening for “In the Pit” (En el hoyo), a Mexican documentary by Juan Carlos Rulfo (son of a famous novelist) that will open soon in New York. Since it was focused on construction workers involved with a massive new elevated highway in Mexico City, I came with expectations that the film would be about class conflict and labor struggles. After the first 10 minutes or so, I began to feel a sense of disappointment after discovering that “In the Pit” had more in common with PBS documentaries on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or Hoover Dam than it did with the labor movement. But after making some adjustments, I can recommend the film without qualifications for its formal elegance and for its willingness to give a voice to ordinary workers.
Rulfo described his goals in this film in a recent interview:
My latest film is about the city, called “In the Pit” (En el hoyo). This film is my second long feature documentary film and is based on the time I spent with a few construction workers who were building the biggest bridge of the city, with a fantastic landscape and background. I focused on the peculiar language they use, like slang plus the popular songs and… words with a “double sense.” But what I liked about this experience is the chance to work with people that are not easy to get along with. At the same time there was a beauty about them as well as a powerful attitude, representing something special. [They didn’t choose an obvious way in which] to talk about their misery, or the injustice they live [with] in their working conditions. I [tried] to be near them in their every day life, including the risks they took and [all of] the absurdity. [These are] things that could [seem] unimportant in a dramatic film, but become meaningful in this kind of film. The main idea is based on a Mexican legend, which says that in order for a bridge to be safe, and never [collapse], the devil asks or demands a soul. That is the price of safety.
The documentary alternates between showing the men (and one woman who monitors traffic to the construction site) at their work and allowing them to hold forth on their hopes and dreams as well as their frustrations. Politics enters into the mix exclusively on the basis of comments like “there are no good presidents anywhere in the world.” Much of the film is taken up with the men cursing each other out good-naturedly or whistling at women on the street below them. Indeed, the machismo becomes somewhat disturbing at one point when one of the workers confesses to having spent time in jail for beating his wife.
The film, however, does not really pursue social or psychological questions in any great depth. We do learn that one of the workers sees the dirty and dangerous job he is now doing as a big step up from working in the fields for $5 per day. The camera crew has followed him back to his farming village where his mother describes what it was like to work in the fields with a baby on her back, a livelihood that has left her with scarred lungs.
But mostly the film is about the act of working: men using jack-hammers to break rock or organizing steel rods into huge bundles in order to reinforce pillars. An endless procession of enormous trucks carry blocks of concrete that support the new highway. The final seven minutes of the film consists of a breathtaking panoramic sweep along the entire 10 mile length of the new highway accompanied by a techno score that pervades the film.