Restoring Life in a Dead City
A steady increase in pollution and industrialization around the world yields an inconvenient truth: those least responsible for environmental damage are most likely to feel its repercussions. It’s this phenomenon that Mexican director Eugenio Polgovsky underscores in his film Resurrección, a feature-length documentary that profiles El Salto’s poorest inhabitants. In battling health hazards caused by the rapid pollution of the town’s once-famous river, the residents rely on collective memory to resurrect — if only figuratively — the paradise they once knew.
The film’s opening scene establishes its central theme: the growing tension between natural and artificial realms. In a slow-moving pan, Polgovsky follows, from root to tip, a knotted tree wedged between two graffiti-covered walls — the ultimate symbol of nature’s struggle amidst man-made impositions. Sure enough, later shots suggest the two are inseparable. Dying trees blend in with a factory façade; cracks in a dilapidated bridge give way to trash-laden waters; a fisherman teeters on a rusty pipe as he scavengers for living fish. To underscore the eerie fusion between natural and artificial realms in El Salto, Polgovsky alternates shots of a moving train with those of a flowing current: both lead (at least, cinematically) to a collection of dilapidated shacks the residents call “Auschwitz houses.” Clearly, industrialization has infiltrated the purity of El Salto — and with deadly repercussions.
While one character’s “virtual cemetery” — an informal catalogue of dead residents — exposes a slew of cancer-related fatalities in El Salto, other health hazards are less obvious. One mother lists a host of chemicals emitted by nearby factories — cyanide, arsenic, mercury, gasoline, hydrocarbons — while her baby, eyes glazed and head bobbing, rests in her arms. Another woman points out entire streets of people suffering from renal failure, and a young girl with skin the texture of tar alludes to her eight biopsies. But for the people of El Salto, pollution has robbed more than health: it has also taken away “our energy, our dreams, our time, our creativity and curiosity — everything that makes us human beings,” one resident observes.
Ironically, in portraying this mass dehumanization, Polgovsky also captures his subjects’ very humanity. In a cluttered backyard corridor, one girl carefully dishes up water for her pet bird, even though their broken hose and a general scarcity of water discourages such sacrificial acts. The same girl shyly requests a copy of “Cinderella and the Red Grasshopper” from the town’s DVD merchant, which involves a short walk past some of El Salto’s most dilapidated houses. The final scene involves a family quietly enjoying ice cream in their barren front yard: one middle-aged woman jokes about being Miss Universe. Ultimately, despite their dire conditions and dwindling morale, El Salto’s residents are simply human, with desires and quirks and hobbies just like anybody else.
Most of all, they represent a community uniquely rooted to their land. As residents point out the rapid change of El Salto’s landscape — one woman recalls how she used to wash clothes in the space that is now a highway; another man talks about the “cattle” that once roamed the now-dry riverbanks — their memories attest not only to the rapid pace of pollution, but also to a lifelong dedication of living in the same place. “Being practical, we could leave,” one resident says. “But the people of our towns did not kill the river.”
It is for this reason that Polgovsky’s incorporation of extraneous video clips is so striking. From the grainy, decades-old footage of El Salto’s paradisiacal waters to Jalisco’s recent public service announcement promising “environmental rescue,” the people onscreen are almost exclusively white tourists. And while the current residents of El Salto never mention, by name, the culprits behind the town’s rapid industrialization, it can be inferred that the same people who carelessly reap the benefits of El Salto — whether in the past, or in grossly unrealistic futuristic animations — are those who look nothing like its current residents.
Resurrection, then, is a beautiful portrait of a community trying to make the most of an ugly reality. While the lush riverbanks and clean water may be lost forever, some things — like hope — can only be restored through collective memory.