Dir: Eugenio Polgovsky. Mexico. 2009. 90mins.

Eugenio Polgovsky’s remarkable documentary, made on a budget of just $35,000, is a day-by-day study of the lives of several groups of child labourers in rural Mexico. Filmed in the sort of up-close detail that only one-man productions shot over long timespans can manage, the un-narrated, un-captioned Los Herederos observes its subjects without comment or polemic. The result is a sometimes harrowing but also poetic and thoughtful film which galvanises its audience without resorting to shock tactics or facile finger-pointing. Polgovsky’s documentary seems sure to continue its festival march, and may secure some one-off theatrical bookings, followed by an afterlife on DVD as an educational and consciousness-raising tool.

Filmed in the provinces of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Pueblo and Guerrero provinces, Los Herederos charts every variety of job that children are pressed into, willingly or not, in these grindingly poor areas. Opening with a lullaby on blackscreen, the film cuts to a view of clouds scudding over densely forested mountain spurs, before homing in on a group of young boys with holes in their shoes, running along a mountain track to a clearing where we will see them gathering firewood and laboriously binding and hauling it in bundles that seem too large for their slender boyish frames.

The coexistence of grind and beauty is a constant feature. We’re rapt and shocked at the same time as we see kids of no more than ten (and often a lot less) shovelling soil, picking tomatoes, making bricks, all with deft movements that seem generationally hardwired. Adults are not absent, and there’s no cruelty on display; kids work alongside their parents, while a baby, brought to work with the rest of the family, is distracted by a piece of tinfoil hung between the tomato rows.

Polgovsky’s handheld digital camera stays close to the action; sometimes his subjects will look into the lens and smile, or stare, but mostly they seem completely used to his presence. The obvious ease of this coexistence wins our sympathy for the observing eye - though there are moments when we will the director to put down his camera and lend a hand. Occasional bursts of raucous carnival band music acccompany some sequences, culminating in a joyous collective ‘dance of the devils’ which ends the film on a note of faith in the irrepressible spirit of childhood.

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Eugenio Polgovsky

Banda Mixe de Oaxaca