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Paraíso

New York Times - Op-Docs - September 8, 2013

by Nadav Kurtz

Paraíso: The Op-Doc "Paraíso" (Paradise) reveals the beauty and danger of three immigrant window cleaners' work on Chicago's skyscrapers.

I first got the idea for this film (whose title, “Paraíso,” is the Spanish word for “Paradise”) when I was living in Chicago working as a film editor. One morning, as I sat at my desk in a high-rise downtown, a man dropped down inches from my window, cleaned it, and disappeared to the next floor. This momentary interaction seemed a perfect metaphor for life in many multiethnic American cities where the work of immigrants often goes unnoticed. I hoped to find out more about what motivated these men to spend their working days dangling hundreds of feet in the air.

Soon after I began filming, I met two brothers, Sergio Polanco and Jaime Polanco, and their cousin, Cruz Guzman. The Polanco brothers came to the United States from García de la Cadena, a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico, and the birthplace of a surprisingly large number of Chicago’s window washers and their families. The brothers and Mr. Guzman are employed by Corporate Cleaning Services, a well-established Chicago window cleaning company that, according to its president, Neal Zucker, requires all of its employees to be in compliance with federal and state guidelines governing employment eligibility. Window washers at this company receive health and life insurance benefits through membership in a union, SEIU Local 1, and can typically earn anywhere between $45,000 and $65,000 a year, depending on their skill level and speed.

My subjects work as many days a week as they can, assessing weather conditions on a daily if not hourly basis to determine the risk of injury from high winds. Fortunately, because of these precautions and other safety standards, window-washing-related fatalities are few. (According to the International Window Cleaning Association, in the United States, there were a total of 39 deaths between 2002 and 2012.) Work continues throughout the year, and even at temperatures just above freezing.

In my filming, what came through most was the men’s commitment to creating a better life for their immediate and extended families in the United States and Mexico through hard work and a dedication to an unusual occupation. These values continue to motivate window washers to climb over the ledges of high-rise buildings on many mornings all over the Chicago skyline.

This video is part of a series produced by independent filmmakers who have received support from the nonprofit Sundance Institute.

Nadav Kurtz is a filmmaker based in New York. “Paraíso” screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has won awards at festivals including the Tribeca Film Festival, A.F.I.-Docs and the Chicago International Film Festival

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Home Away from Home

Neal Zucker, co-founder, president and CEO of Corporate Cleaning Services, the city's largest window-washing firm, eschews corporate-issue office furniture and miniblinds for ornate mahogany pieces and drapes, along with lots of framed photos of family and friends. “I spend so much time here I wanted it to be like home,” he says.

The office is divided into two areas that serve different purposes. “It's important for the space to function on different levels,” says Mr. Zucker, who is active in philanthropic activities (he's co-founder of Gateway Green).

At his desk (upon which sits a Neal Zucker bobblehead doll and a plaque bearing the saying “Trust but verify,” a Ronald Reagan quote) he holds one-on-one meetings; at the sitting area, with couches, a coffee table and flat-screen television, he meets with people in the philanthropic community. “It's really a setting where everyone can come in and feel comfortable,” he says.

There's an overall feeling of order, with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. “The way I set up my office is very much the way I run my life: very methodically and very efficiently,” Mr. Zucker says.


Paraiso: Winner of Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival!

Winner of Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival!

This is what the jury had to say in presenting the award: "This film is a beautifully crafted portrait of a group of men with a sense of humanity and a very unique view of the world. In 10 minutes we were drawn into a story that told us about human nature, quality of life, economics, race, the importance of family and mortality. The men may be invisible to the world rushing below them, but they see through the windows they're washing — deep into the lives and souls of the people behind the glass. It's cinematically exquisite, with light so rich it's thrilling to watch."

More information at www.paraisofilm.com



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