Architecture on Film: In The Pit ( En El Hoyo)

28 September 2009 6.30pm

In The Pit (En El Hoyo)

Winner of Best International Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, this intimate and affecting look at the construction crew behind Mexico City's Periferico Freeway charts the social reality at the core of over 10 miles of soaring reinforced concrete. Through objectively compassionate portraits of a miscellany of characters such as the wolf-whistling El Voyeur and the brusquely realist El Grande, the film charts the coarse life and camaraderie of the workers involved in the creation of a huge slab of the city, both floating in the air and submerged in the pit. The private life of urban infrastructure envisioned through a uniquely personal take on direct cinema, full of humour and grace. 

Mexico 2006, Dir Juan Carlos Rulfo, 84 min


This screening was introduced by Gareth Jones, Senior Lecturer at the London School of Economics and an Associate Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas.

Programme Notes by Gareth Jones

The Mexican writer and critic Carlos Monsiváis once wrote that “visually, Mexico City signifies above all else the superabundance of people”, a city in which the “multitude that accosts the multitude imposes itself like a permanent obsession”, making the “urban vitality a relentless grind”. Rather than turn away from this condition and seek “the perfection of solitude”, Monsiváis argued that we should embrace the city as an “aesthetics of multitude”, wherein living with pending ecological or tectonic disaster, a perilous economy and violence prompts fun, humour and a population of “radical optimists”. Juan Carlos Rulfo’s En El Hoyo follows Monsiváis’s observations, giving us glimpses of the city’s humanism.

At a moment when Mexican films are ‘box office’, with Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mama También, Alejandro González Iñarritu’s Amores Perros and Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light regilding a ‘golden age’, En El Hoyo is an outlier in a country with a limited reputation for documentary. Yet, in many ways En El Hoyo builds on Mexico’s cinematic traditions and complements its current success. Most obviously Rulfo focuses on the ‘common man’, the symbolic figure of 1930s nationalist cinema and Nuevo Cine of the 1960s. Instead, however, of repeating important cultural icons such as the bar room grifter or fated prostitute, roles that gave us Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Dolores del Rio, Rulfo’s lens shows us the daily life of the manual construction worker. There are no planners or engineers. This is a film about those who dig the pit not those who design it.

En El Hoyo too follows a timeline of cinematic treatments of urban Mexico. During the 1930s and 40s, as Mexico was coming to terms with the rapid shift from a rural to an urban society, films such as Maria Candelaria and Allá en el Rancho Grande expressed the tension between a ‘profound Mexico’ embodied in indigenous groups, and especially women, and concern with the quality of urban modernism. Often depicting a recent migrant as a counter to the erudite urbanite, Esquina Bajan! (1948), Maldita Ciudad (1954), El Ropavejero (1946) and Nosotros los Pobres (1948) scrutinized the merits of city life against the temptations for consumer culture, crime and vice.  In Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1952) this critique is symbolised by the boys’ fatal attack on a disabled man against a skyline of steel frame skeletons as new buildings go up all around.

Rulfo however depicts a more intimate relationship between people and infrastructure. The mise-en-scene is our looking down a pit illuminated by torches to reveal somebody stuck below. The shot sets up an irony that runs through the film; for the workers the highway is a “hole”, for the car driving public it is a piece of “elevated” engineering. Rulfo plays with the idea of pit/sky and under/overground in other ways. En El Hoyo offers few direct images of the pit, in preference to shots of the sky -- clear blue, filled with ominous cloud and an impenetrable night. The workers then are stuck between the hole and the sky, their lives dictated by the elements physically and metaphysically. The pit/sky idea operates in parallel to a narrative of devil/God and burial/soul; articulated in Natividad’s opening lament on sadness (tristeza) and her dark reminder that Mexico City is built on dead souls. The “Dos Pisos” will be no different, a view seemingly confirmed by the numerous visual and verbal references to death, graves and altars. The highway’s columns in one scene resemble headstones lined up in a cemetery.

The mis-en-scene also brings to us the physicality of manual work - the men allude to becoming part of their working materials, they joke of dirt and sweat, their hands and faces are marked by injuries. City networks are not just a metaphor, but materially produced through ‘labour’, long hours in cramped humid conditions, sustained with beans and Coca-Cola. The physicality of ‘labour’ is underscored by the masculinity of the social interactions. Speech and refrains from songs centre on sexualisation, jokes suggest a workmate as gay, and women are objects to be looked upon. The bonding of the man’s world of labour is contrasted with the solitary and cerebral views of Natividad.

En El Hoyo’s subtly is the setting up of multiple contrasts. Compared with the physicality and sociability of the construction site, non-work is located in the countryside or city’s edge, and embodied in the smartly dressed Vicencio or the quiet pride of Chompiras showing the crew around his home. Yet these men are unable to afford the items displayed on the billboards alongside the highway: for them Caterpillar is not a fashion label. Class division is also indicated in Rulfo’s contrasts of speed. The city’s car drivers are forced to crawl along to their ‘fast track’ jobs urging the men to work harder. The men seem to work slowly, yet the use of fast-frame suggests the highway shooting up. Finally, Rulfo contrasts the mega city, obscured through the absence of a panorama shot, with the small spaces adjacent to the highway– the petrol station toilet, or office car park tap. Only through the helicopter do we sense what a 2,000 square kilometre city might look like, though the shots serve two different functions: enjoining the film’s ‘characters’ with the thousands doing the same job; and, in bringing us to a national flag linking the “Dos Pisos” with the return of the state to audacious grand urban projects.

So, might we consider En El Hoyo as cinematic urban ethnography? The film draws out the feelings of workers towards the object of their labour, often expressed semi-coherently, crudely, through slang, though often too suggesting self-restraint. Yet, the expressions of sadness, loneliness, of struggle, of sociality in the knowledge that these men will not see each other once the job is finished is poignant. They disperse on bus and the Metro.