Maquilapolis codirector Vicky Funari has a limited but impressive pedigree when it comes to documenting the lives of women on the fringes of society. Her first film, Paulina, told the story of an eight-year-old Mexican girl (who, as a woman, worked as a maid to Funari and her mother in Mexico City) who was mistakenly assumed to have been raped, and the horrors she lived through as a result of that misunderstanding. Funari’s second feature, Live Nude Girls Unite! detailed the efforts of strippers in a San Francisco peep show to unionize. Both works received strong reviews despite their limited exposure, so it comes as no surprise that Maquilapolis, is as sneakily accomplished as it is.

Maquilapolis takes Funari, along with her directing partner, artist-photographer Sergio De La Torre, back to Mexico, specifically to Tijuana, where foreign factories -- mequiladoras -- are packed shoulder to shoulder, having come to take advantage of cheap labor and low taxes. The great majority of the workers in the factories are women, both because they have small, agile hands, and because they’re assumed to be more “docile” than men. Needless to say, none of the women in Maquilapolis are docile. They are “promotoras,” -- leaders -- workers who are self-selected as the ones who are willing to speak up when change is necessary. Trained in a six-week class to use digital video cameras, and about the basic principles of documentary storytelling, the subjects of Maquilapolis are instrumental in telling their own stories, whether it’s through interviews, confessions to their cameras, or by simply narrating the horrors those cameras record.

The women at the center of the film, Carmen and Lourdes, both live and work under terrible conditions. No matter the factory -- Panasonic, Samsung, Sanyo -- workers are exposed to chemicals that damage their lungs, nasal passages, and skin; in some places, they are forbidden to drink or urinate on the job, and develop kidney problems as well. Carmen had nosebleeds whenever she went to work, while Lourdes is constantly afflicted by hives, rashes, and sores, including one on her upper lip that refuses to go away. Even when they leave the factories, Carmen, Lourdes, and their coworkers are not free of danger. Many of them live in what are essentially shandy towns beneath the “Industrial Plateau” where the factories tower, and are showered by pollutants night and day. Smoke rising from the factories drops fine ash on the homes, and in the dirt roads, where it is picked up and tracked home by children. The “river” running through one town is sludge, and is polluted further by the factories above which, every time it rains, open their drainage pipes and literally flood the streets with unimaginable waste, hoping that the rain will disguise their actions.

Despite these crushing circumstances, however, Maquilapolis is in no way a depressing film. Instead, it’s an old-fashioned story of potential, and of what can be accomplished through simple determination. Carmen and her coworkers are denied severance pay when a Sanyo factory closes, and they file a protest with the local job board, eventually winning the pay the are owed. Lourdes and her small group of associates -- all women -- achieve the impossible task of forcing the Mexican government to clean up a frightfully polluted, deserted factory near their homes. Achievements aside, however, what’s most encouraging about the film is the hopefulness of its subjects. Despite living in utter poverty her entire life, Lourdes show no signs of self-pity. She and everyone else in the film live the lives they’ve been given, striving to improve them where possible. Their straight-forward, everyday strength clearly impressed the filmmakers, and it can’t help but impress the audience, as well.

What sets Maquilapolis apart from countless other documentaries about hope in the face of incredible hardship, though, is its incredible style. Particularly early in the film, there are wonderful, impressionistic moments in which things are suggested instead of shown. In the best of them, the workers stand in a row, outside, all wearing their bright blue (indicating their status as operators, the lowest rank in the factories) smocks, rhythmically miming the movements they perform for hours every day. The stark beauty of these scenes is only enhanced by the film’s inspired soundtrack, which is dominated by spare, electronic music that often features the mechanical sounds factory workers hear throughout their workdays. Though Maquilapolis becomes more conventional as it gets deeper into the stories it is telling, in a festival overflowing with documentaries, it nevertheless stands among the best.