All Work and No Play: Documenting Child Labor in The Inheritors


Unadulterated labor is the focus of this blistering, beautifully modulated documentary from Mexican auteur Eugenio Polgovsky. Its prime subjects are child workers—some barely out of toddlerhood, all heartbreakingly industrious—toiling away in states from Sinaloa to Oaxaca on tasks ranging from brick making and water hauling to weaving and woodcarving. Some of the jobs are less physically punishing and require more skill than others, but each involves high levels of tedium (a few, such as crop picking, personify it outright) and are implicitly life-long. Polgovsky isn’t out to wring guilt from his movie’s comparatively lazy audience, though it’d take monstrous will not to feel some measure of culpability while watching or complain about your cushy job anytime soon afterward. Instead, The Inheritors inspires a progression of conflicting responses, from anger over the circumscribed childhoods on display to admiration for the kids’ perseverance to, finally, a kind of sympathetic exhaustion. It also leaves room for envy, of all things, as well as nagging questions about our reflexive vilification of labor and, yes, the meaning of life: Health hazards and physical toll aside, isn’t existence a grind regardless of how we’re required to spend our days? Polgovsky, who edits and shoots as well as directs, leaves such philosophical inquiry wide open, and as his fluid, inquisitive camera follows the disparate daily routines (near-wordless and sometimes with intrusive proximity), he captures moments of joy amid the monotony. He also punctuates the film with disorienting aural and visual blasts, including dirge-like tunes that appear out of nowhere and sudden, uncharacteristically quick cuts, that rouse us into seeing the action anew. The culmination isn’t a harangue, then, but more a symphonic entreaty—to acknowledge who really pays for those cheap Fairway tomatoes we gobble obliviously, for one thing. But also to concede that no matter how lucky and privileged many of us in the “developed” world are to be able to apply our lives to high-paying brain work, we know practically nothing.