The Inheritors Dir. Eugenio Polgovsky

[Tecolote Films; 2011]

Styles: social documentaries
Others: Harvest of Shame, The Harvest, Which Way Home

It would be condescending to call The Inheritors a simple meditation on childhood poverty in Mexico. While it certainly examines childhood poverty, there is no narration or instructive animations, and there is only the slightest hint that the movie is edited to try to influence our feelings (as of course it was, except that most docs are acutely interested in letting the audience know exactly how they are trying to influence them, which undercuts their message). But even most of these ways of describing The Inheritors seem condescending, because it’s a nearly pretension-less movie. The simplicity of its style seems to say, “You don’t need to say anything about me. Just watch.” And since, at the moment, documentaries are coming out slicker and becoming more popular than ever, saying that is saying something.

A few of the moments that The Inheritors has taken the time to capture:

• A little boy cuts his finger on a machete while carving a small figure out of soft wood. He bandages it with scotch tape that his little brother fetched for him, smiles at the camera, and continues carving.

• Five small children, one cradling an infant, suck at runty tomatoes in the shade of a truck being loaded by their mothers and fathers with crates of healthy tomatoes from the surrounding fields.

• Three boys hike through marshy jungle in tattered sneakers, carrying machetes. Each chops a backload of wood, bundles it with a strong leaf, and humps it back to a donkey they’ve left halfway between their gathering spot and their village.

• A woman loads a basket with peppers in a field at dusk while breastfeeding her baby, who rests complacently in a sash wrapped around her torso.

And many more. Although it breaks its entrancing rhythm three times to edit together the faces of its various subjects into a montage — the only glitzy part of the whole proceedings — The Inheritors is still only doing the best it can by its subjects, which is simply watching them work.

We get the sense that these workers are people who over time developed the most efficient methods of doing the work required of their bodies. Now that they’ve done that, their job is to set their minds to toil, and to be content with it. No more high-tech tools or better conditions will become available. Their faces, though often smiling, seem to be saying it: every day is just more work required of their bodies.

This understated film is about the detail and strain and even the pleasure of work, yet the implicit argument, that its subjects are being exploited, is totally convincing. No overseers or suited businessmen or ranch owners are shown, but — as Walker Evans knew — showing the oppressed working well is the surest way to win sympathy for them. It’s clear these people are being forced to put their children to work from the time they’re toddlers, same as their parents did to them, and that they may not even have the luxury of an overseer to complain to.

What’s to be done about it? Well, does it seem strange that Michael Moore’s voice doesn’t chime in over the sound of the workers, unloading opinions about the corruption of the Federal government or the stranglehold of the drug cartels or the rampant imposition of American corporations on Mexican life? Does it seem strange, or do we already feel these things to be true when we see these people? Does it seem like a good thing for once that the subjects of The Inheritors have done someone else’s work for him, just by allowing a camera into their lives?

Most Read