By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 19, 2011 at 2:35AM
"Someone wanted us to vanish," says one of the several survivors in "The Tiniest Place," a chilling look at the trauma of past oppression haunting its victims in the present. Director Tatiana Huezo, making her feature-length debut, interviews the residents of a small village called Cinquera buried in the Salvadoran jungle and still coping with the memories of the civil war that afflicted El Savador between 1980 and 1992. Having lost members of their family to a government aiming to silence civilian dissent, they took their opponent's desire literally and vanished on their own--by heading to the hills, where Huezo finds them.
Eschewing archival footage for a more pensive approach, the filmmaker watches her subjects go about their lives in the wilderness, pitting an otherworldly beauty at odds with the grief they recount. The residents of Cinquera rarely speak on camera. Instead, Huezo focuses on their faces and the minutiae of their provincial lives to provide a sharp contrast with the encroaching dread generated by their testimonies in constant voiceovers. With no fancy tricks and only the occasional musical cue, Huezo effectively gets inside their heads.
The anecdotes slowly grow darker and increasingly ominous, eventually becoming dominated by the villagers' grim recollections of death. Huerzo skillfully handles two layers of narrative: the contemporary footage and voiceovers that deepen its implications. A man recalls the murder of his father driving his battle to survive, and an elderly resident vividly constructs the grisly image of her daughter's mutilated corpse. In each case, their faces expand on the emotional implications of their stories. Using similar finesse, Huerzo matches the tale of bombs wiping away the town with the image of a cloud drifting through the forest landscape, at first an innocuous image that gradually takes on a frightening illustrative dimension.
Like the construction of the movie, the forest appears relatively simple but actually holds a dark secret, littered with undiscovered corpses and other wartime detritus. In this regard, "The Tiniest Place" calls to mind Patricio Guzmán's brilliant "Nostalgia for the Light," which focuses on the remnants of Chilean atrocities strewn about the Atacama Desert. Huezo, however, relies more on irony, juxtaposing the wartime setting with storybook images, acknowledging her distance from the events in question.
The filmmaker is too young to remember the war herself, but has crafted a movie that ably grapples with the past through its reverberations in the present. When one survivor recalls the years he spent hiding from the National Guard in a dark, claustrophobic gave, Huezo's camera follows him to the enclosed space, merging the abstract nature of his account with an unsettling physical reality.
By studying historical oppression through testimonies rather than reconstruction, "The Tiniest Place" recalls Claude Lanzmann's approach in "Shoah" and "Sobibor," borrowing an efficient model for translating survivor tales into cinematic art. Unlike Lanzmann's sprawling opus of despair, however, "The Tiniest Place" comes equipped with the tiniest amount of hope. The escape the Cinquera residents endured is not an isolated event but rather a symbolic work in progress as they search for catharsis. "The forest was an ally to us," one says. By exploring the ongoing natural splendor surrounding them, Huezo makes it clear that the alliance continues.
criticWIRE grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this Friday, August 19 at New York's IFC Center, "The Tiniest Place" should generate strong interest among Latin American filmgoers and benefit from a combination of positive reviews and word-of-mouth to yield a respectable turnout despite its very small release.