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.