With the City at Their Back

in 38th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Valentina Giraldo Sánchez

For the last 15 years, the Guadalajara International Film Festival has included the socio-environmental film award, providing a platform for screening films related to initiatives from various communities. These films showcase their efforts to confront a wounded planet with expressions of care and engagement. In this year’s edition, there were four films participating, the winner being the documentary With the City at Their Back (La Ciudad a la espalda), directed by Paola Rodas and produced by Lucia Romero.

With the City at Their Back tells the story of Maria and Isabel, two women working as recyclers in the city of Quito, Ecuador. Maria leads a collective struggle on behalf of her trade union, while Isabel incorporates her knowledge of environmental care in the raising of her daughters. The film emphasizes the need to build caring relationships with the spaces we inhabit, especially in Quito, where there is no recycling system.

The film also questions the viability of the civilized city, which I see as already dead due to the severity of its environmental problems. However, as I listened to Maria and Isabel, I learned about care and love. They spoke about the inheritance they want to pass on to their daughters: education, teaching, training to counter power structures, and using language effectively. Each mother represents a unique dialect, as Liliana Bodoc says. With the City at Their Back showcases the cooperative work of women as the foundation of the social fabric, connecting various aspects of women’s sovereignty. This understanding extends beyond the domestic realm and encompasses economic, ethnic-racial, cultural, social, and political dimensions. The film highlights that cities are not just built, but also sustained by the efforts of individuals like Maria and Isabel, who recycle bottles, leaves, and cardboard.

The 38th Guadalajara International Film Festival raised concerns from different aspects of the audiovisual industry: global warming, community processes, and the transformative power of cinema as a tool for social change. The socio-environmental film award featured various speeches that urgently addressed the audience.

Rodas constructed a critical and political portrayal of the historical role of women in society. With the City at Their Back challenges traditional cinematic structures with its aesthetic and narrative approach. The film invites us to reflect on how society perpetuates different forms of violence and how the work of care and the role of women in social organizations is fundamental for sustaining life. It is essential to emphasize the relevance of the film’s topic, as it not only centralizes women’s care work, but also prompts us to reflect on the current environmental crisis we are experiencing worldwide.

As viewers, we witness the story of two women navigating the complex interplay between violence and the economy. A global system profits from war and precarization, and how this system is closely linked to mountains of garbage, which are predominantly produced by a specific social class. With the City at Their Back is the result of years of work conducted by Paola as an anthropologist, collaborating with Maria and Isabel. The film emphasizes the need for mutual teaching, organization, and active tenderness, which disrupt political, social, and cultural norms.

The film concludes with the statement: “Dedicated to all the women who sustain life with their care,” emphasizing the significance of the work that Maria and Isabel do in sustaining the collective life of their community.

Valentina Giraldo Sánchez
Edited by José Teodoro