Live from the Karlovy Vary International Film Fest

I should have known Daniel would be late but I decided that if he was, instead of going to the Rock for People concert to sweat in the heat with youngsters half my age, I’d go on to Karlovy Vary and sweat in movie theatres next to youngsters half my age.

It’s true. Unlike most other film festivals I’ve attended this one in KV has the most young people I’ve ever seen at a fest. Everyone is here: skaters and punks and students and just your average middle class (and up) Czech boy or girl looking to see and be seen, and to party.

And why not? Vary makes you want to party. This is my first time in Vary and it’s quite beautiful. It’s far easier to enjoy the summer here than in Prague. The main drag winds through the city following the canal. The buildings are often stunning, just like Prague, and particularly the spas for which this city is famous, and there are sidewalk cafes – not particularly expensive ones either – everywhere, about 3 per block. It’s quite nice. The canalside is expertly landscaped and the whole city is out, along with the festival-goers, strolling on the promenade and lounging on the grass.

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And I saw my first wonderful film, En el hoyo or In the Pit, directed by Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo. Rulfo is also the cinematographer and to great effect. Ostensibly the movie presents a series of portraits of just a few of the men, and one woman, who worked on a huge construction project in Mexico City, the building of a gigantic multi-lane bridge. The construction cost billions, took years to complete (The film only covers three years of that construction; the bridge has been completed as of this screening.) and claimed the lives of many.

Although Rulfo’s affection for these men is palpable, and his desire to de-anonymize them admirable (Rulfo shows a little of these men’s lives outside the construction site: one young man races horses, one older man has saved enough to have a nice home for his family in the country, another can’t afford to do so and lives with his aging parents.) what really registers, and what clearly inspires Rulfo the most as a cameraman, is the bridge itself: Cantilevered shots of the men perched in death-defying positions on makeshift ladders, some wonderful time-lapse photography featuring cranes hauling huge spans of concrete into place and ironworkers moving back and forth like swift ants repairing and pulling steel rods through the skeletal columns for hours, swirling light strings of car headlights and tail lights. All quite impressive. So iimpressive that these images overshadow the portraits of the men who are ultimately treated as, and who feel themselves that they are, inconsequential to the end-product, the Bridge. Nothing makes this point quite so well as the final, unbroken 10 minute-or-so, aerial shot which moves from one end of the bridge to another, from fully completed to the beginning of construction. It’s hypnotic. I was initially drawn to examining details – construction materials, men waving and shouting at the helicopter, seeming miles of bare steel rods that will eventually become miles of smooth asphalt, but the scope of the shot and the speed at which it is delivered makes it impossible to dwell for more than a microsecond on anything specific. Rulfo repeatedly makes these cinematic points about time and scale, using time and scale. Combined with a driving, almost electronic beat inflected with traditional Mexican instruments and voiceovers from the men (The soundtrack is just another masterful aspect of this video) the overall effect is magnificent but, as I said before, dwarfs whatever connection I had made with the men as characters, whose lives seem banal and small next to the bridge, paradoxically their collective achievement.

Perhaps Rulfo knows this and intended it, perhaps not. Certainly, there is no condescension in his camera but he has managed to very honestly capture, like a good documentarian, some truth about the relationship between human labor and the demands of development and progress.

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