Traffic in Mexico City, where mega-commutes are a grim fact of life.
Traffic in Mexico City, where monster mega-commutes are a grim fact of life. Courtesy Luciana Kaplan/Taskovski Films

A new documentary follows the epic journeys faced by commuters in Istanbul, Mexico City, and Los Angeles.

In the vast valley of the Mexico City metro area, home to more than 21 million people, short commutes are a rare luxury. According to the latest government survey, the average trip to work takes 57 minutes, and one out of three morning commutes takes more than an hour. But the truth is that many low-income workers suffer more than that. “I started to think about this problem when my daughter was younger and I hired a woman to help me take care of her,” says documentary filmmaker Luciana Kaplan, who is based in Mexico. “She would tell me that it took her three hours to come to work and then three hours going back. And something always happened to her on the way.”

The woman’s stories kept coming. She fell and injured her collarbone. She got robbed. The subway would break down. It was a constant source of stress. “I started asking more people in the city about this and I noticed that most live this life,” Kaplan says. The filmmaker was so fascinated by the city’s hypercommuters that she ended up devoting more than two years to researching and shooting the film Rush Hour, which was recently screened at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

In the film, Kaplan follows three people in three cities to experience their commutes and show how these journeys affect the rest of their lives. There’s Estela, a Mexican beauty parlor worker living in the suburb of Ecatepec. Then there’s Melten, a Turkish mother of two who crosses the Bosporus every day to get to her job in a clothing store in Istanbul. And there’s Mike, an engineer who drives more than four hours each day across Los Angeles to get to his workplace.

“I didn’t want to talk just about Mexico; this happens everywhere. We are all trapped in the same traffic, in the wear and tear of it, in the emotional sacrifices that we need to do to survive,” Kaplan says.

Rush Hour will also be screened at the Hola Mexico Film Festival in Los Angeles, in the Seattle International Film Festival, and in Washington, D.C., at the Woodrow Wilson Center. It opens in Mexico in September. CityLab caught up with Kaplan recently; our conversation has been edited and condensed (and translated from Spanish).

These are three different people, in very different social contexts. You have someone that has a college degree and a well-paid job, a retail worker, and someone from a low-income suburb, but they suffer similar anxieties because of these long commutes.

Yes. It doesn’t matter that you might have a possibility to choose another option. The man in Los Angeles can choose a different life. But he picks this long commute [from his home in Huntington Beach]. His aspirations lead him to a life similar to the Mexican woman. He is tired all day, he never sees his wife, but he keeps going. It’s a paradox: We search for something, but we get something else. And most of us have a similar approach.

What kind of insight did you gain after following these three commuters?

In a way, this is a movie about a lost happiness, because people are making these sacrifices looking for something that is never really delivered. These long commutes are an example of the promise of an achievable dream, but that is never achieved.

Some have asked me “Well, what is the solution to this?” I don’t have it, but I never shot the film looking for a solution. I think this has to do with something bigger than improving mobility, although I did see how issues like gentrification are pushing people to the periphery of the cities.

One of the other issues portrayed is how gender impacts your mobility.

You can see this in most commuting experiences. In many of them, being a woman is a factor. Like the Turkish woman—she works all day and, when she arrives home, she has to take care of the kids. But this happens everywhere, no matter if you are in Turkey, Mexico, or the United States. Of course, many women in Mexico, especially in the State of Mexico [the region that borders with Mexico City to the north, west and east], leave their homes and don’t know if they are coming back. This is not an exaggeration. They feel it in their commutes. But in each city portrayed in the movie you see a different message. I didn’t want to make a movie only about women.

A still from the documentary Rush Hour. (Taskovski Films)

You’ve already shown this film in many different cities and countries, like Toronto, where most residents have a pretty comfortable commute compared to the one in Mexico City, for example. What happens when people that don’t endure long commutes watch your movie?

On one side, people realize this privilege and they appreciate their lifestyle. But there are some that also realize that, although they don’t have these commutes, they are, in a way, living a similar life. A big-city lifestyle, a capitalistic lifestyle where human relationships are on a second level of importance.

What was the reaction of your main characters when they saw themselves and the other stories on screen?

The Turkish woman told me that she cried all night, because she could see what it means to leave her kids alone. It generated strong feelings in them, of understanding their lives and the need to change. In the case of the Mexican woman it is very funny, because she saw the other stories and told me “Oh, god, their life is much worse… poor guy, this American, what a terrible life.”

But I think none of them felt like they were watching someone that didn’t have anything to do with them. All of us who live in cities, deep down, we are very similar. We have this feeling that there is something that’s wrong, that we are losing something, there is a kind of pain that we share, this thing that we chase and can’t get. This is something that, in a way, makes us part of a brotherhood.

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