“Por Dinero” is an engaging portrait of an indigenous family in the remote town of Panixtlahuaca in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the young son who supports them with his dishwashing job in Florida. This experimental documentary by Brendan and Jeremy Smyth uses a collage technique to convey the relaxed pace of life among Chatino-speaking people in this country town, where very hard work is interspersed with play, conversation, and a simple enjoyment of the beautiful mountainous place where they live. We see family members cutting crops with a machete, slaughtering a rooster, washing clothes, and just sitting quietly. The unhurried flow of time in Panixtlahuaca is captured by the film’s editing rhythms, where slow, calm panning shots are punctuated by the occasional drama of a thunderstorm.
Through voice-over interviews, translated from Chatino, we learn that the 20 year old son Israel has been able to support his entire family through his restaurant job in Florida, generously raising their standard of living. His job is considered a bottom end job in the USA, so this is a striking example of the difference in the cost of living between the two countries. Both Israel and his family speak of the pain cause by the separation, but it is an unavoidable necessity.
Israel’s sister explains that she is trying to learn Spanish because she aspires to become a nurse. Learning Spanish is a key to overcoming Mexican prejudice against indigenous people and moving into the larger society, but she still feels a keen appreciation for her Chatino language and traditions. She doesn’t have enough money for nursing school, however. Israel’s income keeps the family comfortably fed, but it isn’t enough to do more for them.
Florida must seem strange and surreal to Israel, and the Smyth’s convey this by using black and white footage, while the footage from Panixtlahuaca is in the full color which represents “real life.” The Florida footage is also more manipulated: sequences of chaotic single frames and extreme close-ups on parts of Israel’s face indicate a place where life feels fragmented and incoherent. By contrast, the relaxed scenes of ordinary life in Mexico, in which Israel’s family members are generally smiling to themselves with unselfconscious pleasure, reveal a life that is both coherent and meaningful.
The film is also threaded with quotes about the mythical Mayan hero Canek, from a poetic text by Ermilo Abereu Gomez. These fragmentary bits of surreal, supernatural drama form a clear parallel with the mythic, heroic character that Israel has become for his family, and the drama of his journey into an unknown realm on their behalf.
The Mexican footage has the informal feeling of “edited in the camera” diary films. The filmmakers casually capture whatever seems particularly visually arresting to them, although with a practiced and sensitive eye. The soundtrack, by contrast, is a carefully constructed collage of ambient sounds such as wind and dogs barking, local musicians, interviews with the subjects, and excerpts from the Canek text. The careful layering of the sound serves to bind the flow of the film into a crafted, organic experience.
“Por Dinero” is an unusual documentary that is able to mix the poetic, the mythic, and the quotidian to portray the complex economic relationship between an immigrant to the USA and his family in a way that brings the shocking experience of cultural dislocation vividly to life.