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September 2010

In The Pit

cast: Isabel Dolores Hernandez, Jose Guadalupe Calzada, Pedro Sanchez Bernal, and Vicencio Martinez Vazquez

director: Juan Carlos Rulfo

85 minutes (E) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

In The Pit

In the domain of human activity known as the social sciences there are many ideological divisions. One such division is between those researchers who believe that they are in the business of trying to understand the world by generating insights into its workings, and those researchers who believe that it is their job to 'speak' for various disempowered and disenfranchised social groups by communicating how it is that they see themselves.

Documentarian Juan Carlos Rulfo is clearly in agreement with the second group as his film - In The Pit (aka: En el hoyo) - attempts to give a platform to the men and women working to upgrade Mexico City's road network. Unfortunately, though beautifully made and incredibly respectful in its insistence upon letting people speak for themselves; this award-winning film suffers terribly for the fact that its subjects seem to have nothing of any interest to say about themselves, their situation or anything else.

Mexico City, Mexico: a swarming Central American metropolis engulfed by a terrible war. A war fought not over drugs or money, politics or ethnicity but over space. Road space to be exact... On one side of this hideous urban battlefield lies the car, symbol of 20th century individualism and motor of economic opportunity. On the other side of the battlefield stand the city planners, a ragtag band of politicians, engineers and industrialists who understand that in order for a city to grow in a healthy and sustainable fashion, some thought and planning needs to be put into that city's infrastructure.

For decades, the car has had everything its own way, driving out the cart, the horse and the bicycle until Mexico City's roads became clogged with traffic and her citizenry choked on smog. In The Pit takes place a few years after the city planners scored an important tactical victory. A victory that allowed them to lasso enough funding to build a series of overpasses throughout the city: bridges creating a 'second deck' that would effectively double Mexico City's road capacity in certain key areas. The building of such a network of flyovers would be a massive undertaking for a wealthy country but for a country like Mexico, the task is positively Herculean.

There is undeniably a fascinating film to be made about the double-edged nature of the car and its capacity both for injecting wealth into the developing world and its capacity for destroying cities ill-equipped to handle a massive explosion in car ownership. In The Pit is not this film.

There is also a fascinating film to be made about the struggle to convince a cash-strapped government of the need to embark upon a colossal programme of public works in order to ensure the continued viability of one of the largest cities on Earth. In The Pit is not this film either.

Instead of making either of these films, Juan Carlos Rulfo decided to make a film in which he would pay careful attention to what it is that Mexico City's workmen have to say for themselves. This is, in principle, a noble aim. The people of the developing world seldom have a chance to speak for themselves, and the people working to upgrade the infrastructure of one of the largest cities on Earth should have unique insights into not only the plight of the developing world but also the nature of the economic challenges facing countries like Mexico.

In principle, In The Pit should have been an important documentary that captured not only a snapshot of the lives of normal people but also of the process of globalisation in action. However, films are not made in principle. They are made in fact and the fact is that what the labourers of Mexico City turn out to have to say for themselves is pretty much what everyone everywhere has to say for themselves. Namely that having to work for a living is not much fun when compared to getting laid, getting high or being rich enough to do what you want.

Indeed, ask the diminutive Hernandez what he would do to change the world and you get the answer that, if he were president, he would make more money. Not by changing the economy or taxing the rich... he'd just make more money. Ask 'el Grande' Calzada what he regrets about his life and he'll tell you that he regrets not being a gangster because gangsters swagger about with loads of money and spend fortunes on coke and hookers.

In The Pit's main problem is that interviews are only ever as interesting as their subjects and if you stick a camera in the face of someone who has nothing to say for themselves other than to make jokes about their fellow workmates being gay then all you are going to get is a series of tedious talking heads. All the moral righteousness and social consciences in the world are not going to change this basic fact and because of this fact In The Pit is a worthy documentary but not a particularly interesting one. At least at first glance...

The lack of substance to In The Pit's interviews is a real shame as the documentary itself is beautifully and intelligently made. Director Rulfo has not only a talent for atmosphere but also a wonderful eye for capturing scenes and facial expressions that say more than a thousand minutes of shoddy interview footage ever could. Indeed, look past the foreground of In The Pit and you find a director constructing an image of lives wasted in unending back-breaking labour. As the final stunning helicopter shot establishes, Mexico City's public works programme is so vast that it renders individual humans entirely insignificant. Workmen labour in terrible conditions 24 hours a day and sometimes they die, sometimes they retire but it does not matter as the works go on, and on, and on...

To be a road-builder in a city given over entirely to the car is to never see a job finished because every inch of new road you help to construct brings more cars and more congestion and more smog. The war between the car and the city planners is a brutal one. It kills indiscriminately. To be a part of such a war is to never see the sides of it. To never understand and when one does not understand one clings to certainties and fantasies... fantasies that life would be good if only we met the right woman... that life would be good if only we were gangsters... that life would be good if only we could scrape together enough money to retire and become a cowboy. Beneath the surface of In The Pit lurks tragedy. A tragedy of lives wasted in complete incomprehension. This tragedy is universal to the human condition.

Unfortunately, for all his technical skill as a cinematographer, Juan Carlos Rulfo never quite manages to bring out the themes present in the background of his film. Yes, the film is beautifully shot, and yes, the sample-based score by Leonardo Heiblum is spectacular, but this is ultimately a film that does not work because it refuses to place its interviews in any kind of context. Had Rulfo used expert opinion to give an overview of the situation in Mexico City then the jokes and fantasies of the workmen might have had more impact. Had Rulfo edited the interviews so as to use sound-bites to construct some kind of narrative or thematic patchwork then the real human cost of Mexico's urban development might have snapped into focus. Instead we have only a wasted opportunity.

In The Pit comes with a 40-minute making-of documentary which is really just more of the same but with a few of the producers and directors being interviewed along-side the workmen. The DVD has nicely designed menus though.

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