In a town where familymeans everything, a group of volunteer lifeguards save people's lives to support theirs; and a blind man fights for independence from his.
Unsurprisingly, I almost drowned on my first visit to Death Beach. I was saved by volunteer lifeguards who subsist on the donations of the tourists they save. I gave them what I had in my wallet at the time, which was a lot for them but not enough for me. I went back to make a documentary to both repay the lifeguards and to better understand the local community and their struggles with the Mexican government.
Aguila, a career lifeguard and a father of two, saw his first drowning victim when he was eight years old. Now in his mid thirties, he is a front-runner in the lifeguard's uphill battle for funding, and maybe even more important, respect. But as a heavy drug user and occasional dealer, he's also part of the reason that the townspeople in Zipolite won't take them seriously.
Migue, a 20-year-old blind man struggling for independence from his family, has recently come to Zipolite for treatment at a small rehabilitation clinic. He and his family are beginning to accept the possibility that God may not cure his disability, and that Migue will have to learn to use hearing, touch, and smell to navigate the busy streets alone if he hopes to ever forge a life for himself.
Through meeting these strange characters, and many others, I found what makes life so important-even in a town called Death.
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 roughly twelve men and boys who feel compelled to continually risk their lives for others.
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 themselves, had us sign a registry and asked us if we could spare any money. That was how we learned that 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 Pina 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, Pina Palmera has grown to be a renowned and authoritative voice 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 from 2008 to 2009, I became involved in the collective and individual lives of the Delfines and the patients and staff of Pina 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 basic problems of accessibility and funding for social services at Pina Palmera, mirrored a similar struggle for salaries and equipment among the lifeguards. It became quite obvious that these similarities were not coincidental, however, but rather resulted from existing under the same political, social, and 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.