Look Up There
October 16, 2012 by Dan Patton
In 2010, Nadav Kurtz saw people hanging outside his office on the fifteenth floor of a Chicago highrise. They were suspended by ropes, quickly and methodically cleaning windows on their way down the building. “These guys were on one side of the glass,” he remembers, “I thought that was an interesting metaphor.” Over the next few years, he transformed that metaphor into an award-winning short documentary titled, “Paraíso.” The film makes its Chicago premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival on Tuesday October 16th.
Following the lives of three window washers from Garcia de la Cadena, Mexico, “Paraíso” turns the city’s skyline into what Kurtz describes as a “love letter to Chicago.”
“I tried to grab angles that have not yet been captured in photographs,” he explains. “You’re almost getting the feeling that you’re visiting for the first time.” Having lived and worked in the city for more than a decade, he knew where to find unsung metropolitan grace, a bonus for residents and tourists alike.
Mixing footage from cameras on adjacent rooftops with footage from cameras attached to the window washers’ bodies, the film has been praised for its beautry, for certain parts that Kurtz describes as “scary, especially for people who have a fear of heights,” and for a story that goes far beyond the thrill of dangling in midair by bringing the audience back down to earth.
“This is a film about guys who work really hard and take care of their families,” Kurtz explains. The guys he’s talking about are Sergio Polanco, Jaime Polanco and Cruz Guzman, two brothers and a cousin who climb the American Dream on a rope attached to a skyscraper. They ascend hundreds of feet above the city with courage fueled by love and devotion that, according to reviews across the country, the film communicates with startling success.
They are also Mexican immigrants, a subject that Kurtz does not hesitate to address. “There’s a lot of documentaries about immigration,” he says. “I felt these guys were outside of that. I thought this was a good opportunity to show people who are not born here who work here.”
“They were very open” he remembers. “I spent a lot of time getting to know their stories and getting to know who they were.” They welcomed Kurtz into their homes. They invited him to a niece’s birthday party. “It was really fun,” he says. “They gave me beer, this kind of soup. They always were always trying to buy me tacos and stuff. I felt really welcome and comfortable.”
And then he remembers “the moment I started on their mortality...
“I asked them about their dreams,” he begins. “One of the guys described having a dream where he fell. For a few months, this guy had a recurring dream where he was falling. The film became much more about bigger issues like family, mortality. These guys are faced with their own fears every day. We’re all dealing with our own mortality.”
“Paraíso” won the Tribecca Film Festival when it premiered in April, became an Oscar contender two weeks ago and has been celebrated by the Chicago Tribune for its “grandeur” and by the Huffington Post for its “ability to make John Steinbeck cry.”
In a certain way, Kurtz started working on the film long before the idea came to him. When he was eight years old, his family moved to the United States from Switzerland. “I didn’t speak any English and I didn’t have any friends,” he remembers. “So I spent a lot of time making these stories with different characters and voices on an audio recorder. I figured out that I could manipulate the speed and some of the characters would talk with low voices and some would talk with higher voices.”