Almost dying on Death Beach was one of the most exhilarating and goal-adjusting events of my life-- and something that I may never get over. Initially it was a desire to give a group of men some recognition that propelled me into this project, and some hope that I could find a way to convince the authorities in Pochutla that they should be paid. In a town that relies on tourism, one would hope that the people literally saving tourism from drowning would be compensated or at least given a certain amount of respect by the powers that be. What I found was a lot of rhetoric and not a lot of help for these twelve men and boys who feel compelled to continually risk their lives in some seriously amazing acts of heroism.
In July of 2006, I was finishing some research for my senior thesis in the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Upon finishing my investigation, I headed to the coast for some much needed rest and relaxation. We visited a few beaches in the municipality of Pochutla, a once thriving agricultural center that now relies mainly on tourism, both foreign and domestic.
One afternoon, my girlfriend and I waded out into the water of a beach called Zipolite and were sucked out by a quite ferocious riptide. As we were contemplating our options and trying to stay above the crashing waves, I remembered reading something about Zipolite being an old Zapotec word for Death. Needless to say, this didn´t make me feel any better. Only minutes passed, however, before two lifeguards crashed into the surf with flippers and kickboards and pulled us back up onto the sand. "Los Delfines", as they called themseves, had us sign a registry and asked us if we could spare any money--because the lifeguards in Zipolite don't get paid to save lives.
Two years after my brush with death, I returned to Zipolite and began working at a local rehabilitation clinic for people with disabilities living in the coastal region of Oaxaca. The clinic, called Piña Palmera, was founded by an American man and a Swedish woman in the mid eighties. For a decade, it operated as a sort of orphanage and school for unwanted or unruly children. Little by little, over 25 years of innovative and compassionate work with children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, Piña Palmera has grown to be one of the most renowned and authoritative voices in the international conversation regarding disabilities and human rights. Today, the staff works mostly with people outside the physical center, in dozens of surrounding rural communities.
During the nine months that I lived in Zipolite this past year, I became quite involved in the collective and individual lives of the Delfines and the patients and staff of Piña Palmera. In ways that surprised me at first, the narratives of each group began to parallel each other. For example, a lack of financial resources and attention on the part of local authorities to quite basic problems of accessibility and funding for social services at Piña Palmera, mirrored a similar struggle for salaries and equipment among the lifeguards. It became quite obvious that these similarites were not coincidental, however, but rather resulted from existing under the same political, social, economic, circumstances, on both a regional and a national level.
Life on Death Beach, the documentary, is a nine month study of life in a town called Death, and an attempt to reconcile the fact that rather than washing up onto the shore, skinless and bloated, I was saved, accepted, and eventually loved by a community struggling to build a future for itself. With this film, I hope to contribute to that future.