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Tropic of Cancer
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by Chris Parry

"Exploitation runs all the way down the line."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: On the latitude of 23.5 degrees north of the equator lies an area known commonly as the Tropic of Cancer. That'd be a different tropic to the more widely known and mildly despised Tropic of Rheumatoid Arthritis, which runs through Palm Beach, Florida, but I digress. The area described in the title of this film runs along a part of Mexico where, despite being a short drive from the big cities of the southern US, extreme poverty is the order of the day. As big rigs loaded with produce and products speed on by, these local folk have to make do with what they can find in the desert for income and sustenance. In case the reality of that hasn't struck you yet, it means they're literally eating what they find under rocks.

The documentary opens with a young boy checking prairie dog traps, as his mother skins, guts, and dries a rattlesnake. The guts are thrown to a variety of birds kept in handmade cages, alongside pigs, reptiles and rodents of all kinds - basically whatever can be scrounged from the land. So why the shanty town zoo by the side of the highway? Simple. Everything, no matter how small, can be sold to passing tourists for enough money to survive another week. Even cactii.

These people are the Mexicans that American Mexicans shake their head at. They're the lowest class of folks in a society where the wealthiest usually either leave, or lock themselves away in communities where they can enjoy their riches without guilt.

These people are the forgotten citizens, neglected by their government, unable to raise enough coin to move, or buy a car, or even put gas in one, and they sure as heck aren't being protected by the welfare system. And so they scrounge, finding pennies under rocks by way of the prairie dogs that can be sold as exotic pets, or a cactus that could find itself in some wealthy Mexican woman's front yard. They sell the snake skins in rolls, sell the sun-dried flesh as aphrodisiac, and throw the guts to the caged falcons by the side of the road.

The message of the film is clear - these people are doing whatever they can to get by, even if it saps their natural environmental resources to do so. No falcons left after you've captured all the hatchlings? That just means you have to walk further to find more...

But there's another side to this gutting of nature, and that is that the gutting is very necessary to do business with people who are EXACTLY the same, only wealthier.

Dodging poisonous cactii and keeping the damage done by the desert sun to a minimum are all part of what is a full-time job for these people. If they didn't scrounge and capture and slaughter and cage whatever they found around them, they wouldn't be able to eat, let alone live. And it's the greed and exploitation exacted by those of the higher classes, that pull up in Mercedes Benz's and fill their trunk with endangered cactii and capture falcon chicks to be kept as pets, that makes the lower level exploitation necessary.

Think about how that relates to your existence in a grander scale. You buy a bag of apples, and you've had to work for 10 minutes to raise the money to do so. But where did they come from? How much was the guy picking those apples paid? $5 an hour? $2 an hour? What does that person need to do in order to survive? Put his children and wife to work alongside him? Steal? Miss a meal?

Do you even care?

In the time I've been writing this review, I've spent more on coffee than these people earn in an entire day of hard, hot, sweat-covered work. The food I didn't bother to eat from my lunch was more than they give to their kids for an entire meal. I'm a pig. I'm an exploiter. And I cause those 'beneath me' to exploit whoever and whatever they can just so I can sate my desires in a way that I enjoy.

We're kind of scummy creatures, us democracy-enjoying human beings. We aspire to earning money on the share market without ever thinking of the guy who lost that dollar to us. We weep over tsunamis, then donate less than it costs to fill a gas tank to the victims of the disaster. And if nothing else, Tropic of Cancer reminded me that, yes, I am the problem.

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originally posted: 01/23/05 21:27:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/13/05 Steve Wonderful, Powerful, Poetic 5 stars
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Directed by
  Eugenio Polgovsky

Written by
  Eugenio Polgovsky


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