The documentary film, “The Human Tower,” follows three manifestations of human tower festivals around the world — in Spain, Chile and India.
These events involve crowds of people forming multi-level towers by climbing up on one another in competitions and performances
The film, co-directed by Ram Devineni and Cano Rojas, began when Devineni invited Rojas to join him in the research for the project.
Rojas had lived in Barcelona for a year at one point and was already familiar with the phenomenon. In Spain, the towers are an endeavor by the Catalan culture, from northern Spain, and Rojas said that their towers are very professionally done in comparison to others.
“It’s very well-done, very professional, very rigid. They never fall,” he said. “In India, it’s very messy, very chaotic, very organic. It’s like a breathing thing. And then the Chilean one is shy, is full of passion, it’s way below the other two in terms of accomplishment and size.”
In Spain, human towers are a middle-class enthusiasm, and the people involved have the resources and technology to make it a year-round and slick effort. The Indian version is enacted annually by members of the lower caste, who train intensively for two months prior to the event.
“These guys that are ignored by society all year round, for one day a year, they become celebrities, rock stars,” Rojas said, “and that’s something that’s really beautiful to see, how much pride they’ve put in this thing and how much they work to kick ass on this one day. The spectacularity of India is much more entertaining, because you have a huge crowd and it’s much more messy and the colors are just beautiful.”
“Spain is like another level. They have maps of each tower, they do transversal cuts so you can see each person in the base and on each floor. Their program of training in Spain is amazing. It’s a very well-calculated effort, the position of the people, the size of the people that go in each place, there’s no randomness at all in the Spanish one.”
Because of this, the towers created in Spain tend to be more complicated and imposing than those elsewhere.
They also turn it into a communal effort, with trainings set up as family events that include meals and involving all family members, not just those in the tower.
The Chilean effort is still too new to challenge the Spanish ones. Their towers are smaller, but Rojas said the story about building a community that is contained in their efforts is special and engaging.
Human towers aren’t confined to the three locations covered in the film. Rojas points to Italy and China as sites of other efforts.
“We shot the Italian ones for a tiny bit,” he said. “It’s only two levels and they move around and dance. ”
Any others in the world are actually off-shoots of the Catalan tradition, who see spreading the tower events as a show of pride in their culture.
“It’s random guys who moved to a town in the middle of nowhere and they started doing this thing,” said Rojas. “Through the team in Spain, they do it in this country and that country. Even in the U.S., there are a couple of people who are trying to start it on the West Coast that are actually part of the team we shot.”
Rojas participated once in a human tower, a small one of four people, that brought him a better understanding of the actual emotions involved.
“Even though it was a tiny tower, the amount of concentration and pressure you have in your head, knowing that you have two kids above you who are depending on your equilibrium and concentration, it’s fascinating,” he said. “It brings you to another level.”
A tower isn’t a collection of individuals piling up on each other, but a super-organism in which the slightest aspect of each part affects all the other parts. Each part is equally important.
“You feel responsible,” said Rojas. “You can’t look to the side, you have to keep pushing and pressing and stay super focused.”
It’s this inherent egalitarianism that holds much of the fascination for Rojas, who sees the human towers as a ground-breaking sport that does not discriminate or exclude.
“It’s like the future of sports,” said Rojas. “It’s an amazing activity where any body of any size or any age can compete on the same team, which is crazy to think about. We had people like 65 years old on the base, we had kids like 6 years old on the top, we had women, we had men, we had the short little stubby guy, we had the long skinny guy, all sizes and all shapes.”
Tower building also is community-building and strengthening, and Rojas thinks all this explains its growing popularity among certain populations — this is not an unattainable, exclusive goal, but just a part of ordinary lives.
“These people are crazy about building towers,” he said. “All they do all day is think about towers.
“You go to their house and all they have is pictures of towers on the walls all over, and they speak tower and breathe tower. It’s amazing.”
“You have this physical activity, you have an artistic approach and you have the every day life. They date people from the team, they marry people from the team. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.”