The streets of Lima, Peru, are lined with tall buildings. Among the crowds who pass through their doors, how many know that the stones for their foundations were mined by children rising at 6 a.m.? In Back of the World (opens May 22 at the Pioneer), a three-part documentary, Peruvian filmmaker Javier Corcuera loosely links three communities of forgotten people: workers in a quarry just outside Lima, banished or imprisoned Kurdish leaders, and Texas death-row inmates. The first group is close to Corcuera’s hometown, where boys and girls pass their days cutting stones to earn money for shoes and bread. The numbing labor leaves them little time for games of barefoot soccer. But most heartbreaking of all are their dreams of lives as car mechanics or accountants, hopes that may far exceed their grasp.
Chapter Two follows Mehdi Zana, who also loved to play soccer, but spent much of his adult life in Turkish prisons for his activities as a Kurdish politician and intellectual. Now at 60, he lives in Stockholm, while back home his wife, Leyla, sits in jail for speaking Kurdish while being sworn in as a member of Turkey’s parliament. Images of his snowy exile alternate with interviews in which Kurdish women hold pictures of husbands and sons who’ve disappeared during Turkey’s 20-year state of emergency.
What saves this deeply affecting film from being merely a collection of wrenching cases is Corcuera’s attention to detail—the irrepressible play of child laborers or the pain a woman in Texas felt when she wasn’t allowed to embrace her brother before his execution. All of the film’s subjects are waiting: for a better future, for a liberated Kurdistan, or for a reprieve from death at the hands of the state. This, says Corcuera (heir to Jacob Riis and company), is how the other half lives.