When we first meet the diver that gives Esteban Arrangoiz’s short film El buzo (The Diver) its title, we see him slowly being lowered down to what looks like a pile of trash. When the camera shifts to give us his point of view, he’s on the verge of colliding with the garbage. He eventually submerges himself in it, leaving us staring into a near blackened screen. It’s only later that a helpful title card offers context: “Julio César Cú Cámara is one of the few divers in the world specialized in sewage water diving.”
In the hands of another filmmaker, The Diver could very easily have veered into the type of human interest story you’d catch on the 11pm news. But Arrangoiz, who is a diver himself – though one more at home in the crystal clear waters of the ocean – has instead created a documentary that puts you quite literally in Julio César’s headspace. While we hear a bit about César’s everyday life, most of the short’s running time lets us merely witness him at work—transporting the bulky equipment needed to keep Mexico City’s water system going, diving down to remove branches from the sewer, and mostly navigating the pitch-black waters that make him feel like he’s in outer space. Almost unassuming in nature, The Diver manages to humanize what’s no doubt a thankless if necessary job, all the while offering—no joke—breathtaking views of the city’s sewer system.
Ahead of the short’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Remezcla connected with Arrangoiz to talk about how he first heard of Julio César, why his choice of camera made the process both more difficult and more rewarding, and what he hopes audiences take away from learning about Julio César’s day job. Check out our chat below.
How did your background help you prepare for The Diver?
“I wanted to find out what fascination he found in the black waters that keep him going back in”
I grew up in a small town in the mountains of Mexico. It’s called Pátzcuaro. It’s a beautiful town with a big plaza and a lake. I grew up really free there, though sadly it is not the same now. It’s funny how I remembered, when I was filming The Diver, how I used to go and play to what I called “the small creek” behind my house, but it actually was the sewer — I just loved to go there and follow the sewer creek into a big tunnel. I liked the adrenaline of going into the black tunnel, but obviously I ran back really fast, never going all the way in. Maybe doing this film was kind of fighting that fear.
Where did the idea for this short come about?
I read a piece in the paper about [César]. It had this kind of sensationalistic tone, but I found in his words a real love for his job. I’m a diver and I started diving to discover new worlds and experiences, so I could not understand why he loved going into those waters. I also read that he had been doing this job for 25 years, and that his pay was not much. Clearly he didn’t do it mainly for the money, so I wanted to find out what fascination he found in the black waters that keep him going back, [even] with all the risks this entails.
You’ve called Julio César an “anonymous hero.” What do you mean by that?
“What he likes the most about his job is the fact that he gets to help others”
When I started doing the research for the documentary, I found out that all the news pieces on him were clearly written with a sensationalistic tone. They presented a kind of phenomenon hero, the guy that goes in the shit for the city. None of them showed the human side of it. So mainly I wanted to show the human hero at the center of this story. I think that is what the audience takes away from the short, a guy who found a job that he loves and fits him perfectly. What he likes the most about his job is the fact that he gets to help others, his altruism. He’d rather use his abilities in the sewers for his community, than going to the ocean with his family. That is what I call a human hero.
I have to imagine shooting Julio César while he worked posed some interesting technical difficulties given the environment and the types of shots we see on screen. What challenges did this particular film shoot pose for you and your team?
The whole shooting was really difficult, I decided to shoot the film on Super-16mm, so you can imagine what it was like to be in all those spaces with such a big documentary camera. But cinema is never meant to be easy, and many times these kind of difficulties make for a better film. When you are shooting on film and when you have so few shots, firstly because Julio can’t repeat many of his actions and because we only had one reel per day, you have to think a lot about what you are filming. Every decision becomes really important in every way. You can’t be moving the camera around and I like that. It brings a lot of concentration to the whole team. When you shoot documentary on video you shoot a lot, you don’t want to miss anything, and that is not good later in the editing.
I know you’ve worked and benefited greatly from some festival programs (I’m thinking of the Talent Campus programs, for example) and I wanted to hear about your experience there.
Yes, those programs are great, I really appreciate what the Berlinale does around the world promoting film, it’s a very engaged institution with the film community, and with the new seeds of cinema. They understand the importance of film [and its] role to change the world. In those programs you get to do a lot of networking, you get inspired by listening to experienced filmmakers, you get to live the festival life and learn how to get the most out of it, you gain a lot in a week. And the Sundance Institute is the same, it is also a very engaged institution – I just haven’t had the opportunity to experience it closer, but I’m really happy to come this year and get to know a bit more about this great community.
What’s next for you following The Diver?
I have been writing a lot this year while traveling with The Diver. I even thought the The Diver could grow into a feature film, including Mexico City as a character, its history with all the problems of water since the Aztecs, and that could offer a complete portrait of Julio—he has many interesting stories that I left out. I actually finished the treatment for it but I’m kind of tired of the theme already and want to look into fresh waters instead, so I will be leaving that in the drawer for a bit.
I did just finish a new short. It’s in post production, it is called Reverie in the Meadow. It’s a kind of hybrid documentary about a Mexican migrant that lives in the United States, and decides to leave the “American Dream” to come back to Mexico and live a simple life, working as a shepherd. But he finds a violent country without roads to follow. It is a sad atmosphere but this character I found, gives me a lot of hope, he emits such a lightness in his way of being that breaks through this dense violent atmosphere just by being himself. I could go on but maybe we can talk about it soon enough!
The Diver screens as part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival