Sleep, my child, sleep
Don’t wake up my little one
My child, my little child,
Don’t wake up my little one
Have sweet dreams,
Sleep my child, sleep,
Don’t wake up my little one,
Don’t wake up my little one.
Sleep my child,
my little child.
The film opens with this lullaby. A sweet, motherly voice sings it, but the melody is haunting. Then, the world appears, unrelenting and vast, the people in it tiny and insignificant. The long, slow tracking shot of the misty mountains is magnificent, reminiscent of a travelogue.1 But the harsh reality of human-scale life within the mountains reveals itself quickly, with a view of small feet in torn shoes maneuvering frantically through tangled underbrush. Soon we see the dirty, worn hooves of a gaunt pack-mule and understand that the boys and the animal share a life of constant labor. Later, a very small boy carries two jugs of water with a yolk over his shoulders, and the film cuts to cattle yolked to a rickety wooden plow. A young goatherd playfully imitates the animals he’s leading by holding his makeshift staff over his shoulders, mocking alongside the animals. The children in The Inheritors are beasts of burden.
Feet are emphasized throughout, giving the sense of a slogging march through life. It is a steep, and slippery uphill journey, and there is no break or “retirement” at the end. As evinced by an old woman feeding her chickens and making tortillas from scratch, whose individual steps seem to require a great effort, the subjects of the film work until the day they die.
The camera integrates into its surroundings, observing the world through what often seem like the eyes of a co-laborer. The long and meticulous processes of production, harvest, gathering, and hauling are documented with a patience that matches the steady, acquiescent pace of the film’s subjects, who never complain or rush. Polgovsky’s camera stays close to them—hiking up mountain paths and weaving through cane fields; being jostled on the crowded truck to the field at the break of day; down in the dirt with harvesters, plowmen, and seed-droppers—though it never reaches into the scene with a helping hand, as the viewer may sometimes want it to. The camera’s gaze is absent of pity. It respects its subjects for their ingenuity and their perseverance in the face of difficulty. When a boy on a mountain path drops the load of wood he worked meticulously to bundle and hoist onto his back, the camera turns to the other two boys hauling wood. One smiles at the camera (not at the other boy’s expense, but more in a gesture of familiarity with the situation) while the other catches up and stops. Both boys watch their cohort patiently, without running to the rescue. The film avoids a maudlin or pitying tone through moments like this: instead it trusts, like his co-laborers, that he can take care of himself.
This scene’s patient observation demonstrates (perhaps with a bit of awe) the self-sufficiency of its subjects, who support each other when they can but are mostly on their own, without the help of any charitable hand to relieve them. This moment also captures a stark cruelty and injustice to which these world-worn children have grown accustomed. As the film continues, the viewer may start to understand that the disparity between his or her own comfortable childhood and the laborious one experienced by the children on screen may be a cause and effect situation. Without being explicitly told to feel this way, the viewer may catch a glimpse of the reality that some work so that others don’t have to.
Cutting between various daylong labors in progress, Polgovsky’s film reflects upon the omnipresent, never-ending nature of work in these rural lands. One scene shows a young boy carving a piece of wood with tools that, outside of the culture being depicted, would be considered far too sharp for a young boy to use. A tension builds within the tight frame of the boy’s hands. As the viewer has been led to fear, the boy cuts himself. But instead of this being the dramatic moment the viewer anticipated, the boy looks briefly at his bleeding finger then presses it against his pants in an attempt to stanch the blood before turning back to his work. It isn’t long before the blood starts interfering with the time-sensitive task at hand, dirtying the wood and making his knife too slippery to grip. He asks a smaller boy to fetch him some tape which he then wraps tightly, but haphazardly around his finger. He looks up from his work for only a moment, to smile sheepishly—almost apologetically—at the camera. As with the boy who drops his load of logs, the setback is familiar to him, and it doesn’t deserve much time or attention. A later shot reveals that the wood he is carving will be painted to join a bright menagerie of hand-carved dragons and birds and horses. This seems a direct demonstration of the blood and sweat that literally go into this labor.
In a later scene, when a girl begins spinning the wheels of a large loom, intricate and beautiful music seems to burst forth from the mechanism of the loom. In a striking manipulation of reality (and a departure from Polgovsky’s predominantly direct-cinema style, which is absent of voiceover narration, title-cards, or interviews), the music is non-diegetic, but this distinction is blurred because of the way the music starts up in time with the loom. Slow and distorted at first, the song soon becomes clear-toned, matching the rhythm of the loom’s spinning wheels, as though the girl were operating a hand-crank gramophone. The song is the de facto anthem of the state of Oaxaca, “Dios Nunca Muere,” and its lyrics celebrate the ability to survive life’s trials through faith that help is offered by God when needed, suggesting a more hopeful side of life, as brightly colorful as the painted wooden animals. But all this brightness conflicts with the dull reality that these children sweat and bleed through their labor. Later, this same waltz plays as the field workers make their journey home at the end of their long day. It sounds celebratory and funereal at once, the bass-line plodding as heavily as the feet of the workers, but with a brassy quality that hints at a moment of joy.
Back home, in the dust and dark that follows the sun-blasted day, the spirited group of goatherds in horned masks dances to the “Danza de los Diablos.” The faces we can see, of other children watching and dancing, are smiling in the flickering firelight. The scene cuts away to a quick glimpse of the bright fabric being produced by an older woman at a spidery-limbed loom, and the film ends on a brief note of hope: these children will inherit a life loaded high with work, but they will also inherit this dance, this music, a flashing glimpse of the kind of childhood the viewer may wish upon them.
1 This shot could be a nod to Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, which Polgovsky’s film parallels in its depiction of a rural culture, though without Buñuel’s irony, morbidity, or condemnation of the European travelogue’s condescending perspective of “primitive” cultures.