I just saw Eugenio Polgovsky’s Los herederos. It’s a quite remarkable film.
The movie’s topic is, essentially, child labor in rural Mexico. With no voice-over, no interviews, no title cards, and no framing or explanation, it follows a series of campesino children from diverse parts of the country as they go about their daily tasks. These range from domestic duties such as fetching firewood or water, making tortillas or feeding the family’s animals, to artesanal, industrial, or agro-industrial enterprises such as carving and painting handicrafts, making bricks, helping to plough and sow a field, or working in the harvest for tomatoes or beans.
The children involved in these activities are of all ages, from (literally) babes in arms, who are on their mothers’ or sisters’ backs, or set down to sleep in a row of crops, to young adolescents. On the whole, however, the focus is on kids of around seven, eight, or nine years old.
What’s striking first is how fully and unquestioningly these children are part of the labor process. There is very little discussion or conversation at any stage. At no point is there any protest. Equally, however, at almost no point does anybody have to tell them what to do: they already know, and simply get on with it. Moreover, with rare exceptions (a trio of young boys bringing home a mule, for instance), there is little if any larking around. Nor, on the other hand, is there much sign of boredom or even tiredness. The kids are almost entirely focused on what they’re doing.
This focused attention comes perhaps from the children’s sense of the importance of their labor. Or from their recognition of the risks that it involves. One young boy is carving what eventually appears to be a cat from a block of wood, first with a machete and then with a sharp knife. He cuts his finger, but continues until blood starts to get in the way of his work. He asks (what is presumably) his little brother to “get the tape.” He asks him to do it “quickly,” but there’s no real sense of urgency, and he carries on whittling in the meantime. The tape turns out to be regular scotch tape, which he wraps around the tip of his finger before continuing on.
In short, there’s a certain affectlessness that pervades the movie. It’s broken from time to time: we get the occasional grin, the occasional instance of self-consciousness in front of the camera. Sometimes the smallest kids stumble and fall, but almost none of them cry or scream. No wonder the director should state that he felt fueled by “rage and awe”, as though to supply an affect that was otherwise missing.
In watching his film, however, which steadfastly refuses any discourse of denunciation–indeed, any discourse at all–it is now we, the audience, who are compelled to bring to the experience the missing affect.