The two spoken stories that run in parallel in Tatiana Huezo‘s smouldering, incendiary documentary would be worth hearing even if they weren’t accompanied by such absorbing imagery. But they are, and yet even more than pictorial beauty and the power of personal testimony, it is the way that Huezo, with quiet confidence despite this only being her second feature-length documentary, weaves image, story and soundtrack together, that makes “Tempestad” such a rich and original piece of work. The subtlety of her approach interlaces ideas, resonances and emotions in ever-shifting, eternally edifying ways. And it ultimately promotes the film from human interest journalism to a grand work of socio-political critique and a quietly radical remodeling of familiar documentary formats.
At its most basic, it is the story of two Mexican women. They don’t know each other, nor do they meet and we almost never see them speak the words they say. The first woman (they both remain unnamed, though we know the names of their children) tells in simple, declarative sentences in voiceover a most astonishing story of Kafkaesque injustice, as if Kafka could have envisaged such crude, grubby violence. One day she and some colleagues were simply removed from their jobs and thrown into prison despite the authorities acknowledging that she was not guilty of the human trafficking with which she was charged. Worse, the prison was “self-governing” which means it’s run by the cartels who — gut punch alert — charge the inmates for “protection” from their own sicarios: $5,000 up front and $500 a week thereafter, to be extorted from their relatives. Later we hear, casually mentioned, that she is an amputee, that she has a son, Leo, for whom she longs, that she makes a friend on the inside and sees things that will haunt her till she dies. These facts come piecemeal to us, because that’s the way memory works, but when she is finally released from this hell (literally — the prison has an area where “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” is painted on a wall three storeys high) the experience has irrevocably changed her.
While this story is unfolding we see ostensibly unrelated imagery, captured by DP Ernesto Prado’s curious, contemplative camera. It roughly follows the 2000 km journey the penniless ex-convict undertook to get back to the child she is scared will not recognize her anymore. After all, she no longer recognizes herself; again, it’s appropriate that we never see her face. Instead we watch gritty desolate urban scenes, abandoned stairwells, derelict houses. Then bustle and traffic and life and noise, and then, most crucially, people: sleeping, moving, talking, working and staring dully out of windows on long-distance bus rides. We watch these myriad faces while the faceless woman talks and the effect is clear: she is any one of them.
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But just when we think we’ve got purchase on the cadences of Huezo’s style, the register changes and we are in a windy field in a Big Top circus tent where bendy children are practicing trapeze moves. A different voice talks about motherhood and circus life and we do see this woman’s face. It is kind, she laughs a lot. She is a circus clown — an “elegant” one like her father before her — and a dedicated mother. But one day, 10 years ago, her 20-year old daughter Monica left for college and never came back. There was talk of ransom but the call never came. She has been looking for her daughter ever since, making herself such a pest to the gangsters who kidnapped Monica that her own life has been threatened. She is seeking, but lives like she’s in hiding.
The collagist feel of pictures that only sometimes refer directly to what we’re hearing, and more often tell micro-stories of their own — like a long, fascinated section watching workers shelling shrimp in a fish factory — only lets up on a couple of occasions. First, when the circus lady and her friends are shot, for the only time, with sync sound, and they joke about being interviewed, and who is “allowed to talk.” It’s a fourth-wall-breaking moment that could shatter the formal rigor of Huezo’s approach, but you can see why she kept it exactly as she did: it’s a cathartic moment of release as the women crack up into hysterical, uncontrollable and highly infectious gales of laughter, which transforms into a weeping jag in remembrance of Monica, before her mother summons the laughter to return and it does. This must be what it’s like to be a joyful person living with so much sorrow.
The second time Huezo changes the style slightly comes at the very end, where an abstract series of colors and lights and water sounds resolves itself into one of the most remarkable final shots in recent memory. But the shooting throughout is astonishing, exploding these stories out into the wider context of a whole society in which violence, sudden disappearances, corruption and collusion are facts of life, and the bridge across the abyss is narrow and rotted through in parts.
It starts admittedly slowly, but then it takes a moment to acclimate to the with-the-grain, against-the-grain dissonance and resonance that occurs between the images and the words. And later, the deceptively languid rhythm will give us welcome space to explore the many side-stories Huezo’s inquisitive shotmaking touches on. Alternatively you can sit back and listen to these grief-stricken, desperate but beautifully truthful bedtime stories while the images just wash over you like a long dream of Mexico.
Which is not to say that the related experiences of the two women are anything but gripping, urgent and darkly revelatory, just that “Tempestad” is not designed to be in service of them. Instead Huezo puts those stories in service of a broader and much more ambitious remit: to tell us about a whole exploited underclass, a whole society, a whole country. And so what starts out as a single melody then morphs into a duet — the lonely ballad of the convict and the circus clown — becomes instead a veritable Carmina Burana in which those are just two harmonizing solo voices in a chorus of millions. [A-]