The Brickmakers ★★★★★

Both the creation of this landmark documentary and the promotion of its arguments are a miracle. Therefore, if you are a Latin American, particularly a Colombian, this story concerns you. Then again, if you are a firm believer in the capitalist system and your current stance regarding its repercussions of labor exploitation and socioeconomic inequalities are irrelevant or justifiable, this story concerns you gravely.

During the decade of the 1960s, Colombian cinema was barely in a stage of initial development. It was virtually non-existent and received no support from the government, and nobody, in the words of Colombian academics, “would bet” for film projects. Added to that, in the words of Marta Rodríguez, the conception of film in Colombia as documentaries was “utopian”. Marta Rodríguez has been a sociologist and anthropologist concerned with social inequalities and the exploitation of marginalized social classes throughout her entire academic and artistic career. Unable to find support and funds for a film study career, she travelled to France in 1962 and stayed for three years. Marta’s works have always been greatly inspired by renowned anthropologist and documentarian Jean Rouch, whose most valuable lesson for Marta, as she claimed in an interview, was “to observe the people and their surroundings”. This was against the established conventionalisms of the documentary genre to visit locations and present information through personal interviews. As any wise Iranian filmmaker would apply in his/her films, she came back to Colombia in 1965 and began what would be a five-year-long project. She received support from absolutely no one, including her own mother (who threatened her with disinheriting her if she continued working with film projects), except from autodidact photographer and filmmaker Jorge Silva. Giving her the appropriate contacts to gather funds and the permissions for shooting the film, they raised 100,000 Colombian pesos and, along with Silva, shot the film during the course of five years.

From a very major viewpoint, what Chircales did specifically for the Colombian film industry are three things

1) It gave birth to the documentary genre as a possible cinematic branch of film expression
2) It promoted Colombian cinema internationally
3) It gave, for the first time, a voice to Colombian people, primarily, through an incisive look at their life conditions

The film was finished in 1971 and sent to the Leipzig DOK Festival, where many films around the world shot in expensive, professional formats, were shown and/or premiered. Chircales was the most rustically filmed exposition and, against Marta’s own expectations, took back home all the accolades of the festival. That’s another female cinema heroine for you.

“Chircales” refers to the zone located in the southern part of Bogotá dedicated to the fabrication of bricks. The fact that the foremen and landowners gave permission for the crew to shoot the life conditions of the workers is one of the most contradictory cases of hypocrisy I have ever seen in documented film. It’s like if they saw this exploitation as perfectly justifiable and normal, and worthy of documenting the owners’ profits. In this zone, workers from all ages are reduced to the most primitive life conditions imaginable and, according to the researchers’ numbers, their wage were equal to approximately 3.5% of the sellers (ratio obtained by dividing the value of 35 bricks, which the workers kept, by the market value of 1,000 bricks sold). Meanwhile, the workers are exposed to death-defying health conditions after the burning process of the bricks, plus hygiene conditions and underpayment.

Marta does not present her documentary without a political discourse in which a whole country celebrates the exchange of power between the liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo and the conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero, with the lower classes voting for the liberal government to remain in power since that is the tradition of their family elders. Regardless of the ideology, however, Marta concludes that the agrarian and economic realities of the country, greatly influenced by political corruption and castes inheriting political power and exerting it through inhuman exploitation, were “obscured” and “remained hidden” for a long time, until now. Political figures are presented as denying that 3% of the population are owners of 60%-70% of the total country’s wealth, declaring those researchers as ignorants (actual archive footage). Then, the whole exposition of Chircales follows.

The whole story is told through the perspective of a family consisting in a chauvinist, alcoholic and abusive father (once again, the destructive family structure that has persevered throughout many decades around the world and that I have deeply discussed and debated in my review of Roma [2019] and other places resurfaces), a worrying woman, and twelve children, one unborn. Religion is presented through a perspective of neutrality, showing it only as a custom of the family (which is absolutely appropriate, since religion has zero participation considering the main arguments of the film and never becomes a subject that sidetracks them), but concluding that these exploitation conditions allow the workers null possibilities of emotional, spiritual and economic development for their future (something that the unreadable and terrible English subtitles in the commonly available public version of the film did not translate well, as well as in many other instances). Nevertheless, there is a statistic that has remained consistent throughout many decades as well. For a long time, there has been a significantly negative correlation for developing economies, including Latin American countries, between the quality of life of a whole family and the number of children they decide to have. This is a sociological topic that matters and that wasn’t fully explored in this film. It is very briefly discussed and the argument is actually left half-developed, stopping at the mother’s answer: “If God allowed many children to be brought into this world, there must be a purpose behind their lives for being here”, vs. the doctor’s answer: “If this is your current life and job situation, why are you bringing so many beggars to the world?” This actually never answers the decision-making processes of poor families deciding to have many children almost impossible to support with healthcare, food and education. However, Marta does make an indirect comment towards the ending of the documentary, showing many mothers lamenting the loss of their labor-exploited husbands and crying: “Why did you have to leave? What am I going to do with so many children alone?” All social strata are full of contradictions, whether if driven by religious faith towards God and other saints or not, or by a capitalist thirst of power.

I would like to finish this non-formal essay stating two things. One is that the Colombian inequality of wealth distribution has changed since the 1960s, and that Chircales actually doesn’t exist anymore. However, this capitalist ideology of exploitation and profit-maximization is applied in practice by many governments and global corporations around the globe, and we have become desensitized to it, forgetting the relevance of its abominable implications. The second one is that Marta can be considered as the mother of the documentary genre in Colombia. Like Kiarostami would do, she didn’t resort to interviews. She was only an observant throughout her five years of research and weeks of filming, capturing life as it is. This is the most proper way to document reality whenever it is possible. Without her, flawless and magnificent films like Agarrando Pueblo (1977) would not exist. This is a hard-hitting masterpiece of the New Latin American Cinema. Propaganda has never been a mandatory synonym for “bad cinema”.


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