Storm over Mexico: Tatiana Huezo’s Journey into Fear, Memory and Hope in a Country at War

in 66th Berlin International Film Festival

by Alberto Ramos Ruiz

Tempest (Tempestad), the second feature documentary film by Salvadorian Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place; Absences) metaphorically refers in its very title to the deep crisis facing Mexico now; a nation devastated by the criminal wars of cartels and where government credibility has been seriously undermined by rampant corruption and institutional incompetence. Here the “storm” that hits the country conveys a particularly insidious form of psychological-cum-physical aggression, the most visible outcome of which is a state of permanent fear and vulnerability in people, impossibly caught between two fires; e.g., the threat of arbitrary imprisonment or justice failure by government, from the one side, and kidnapping or even murder at the hands of organized crime, from the other.

Tempest is a painful journey into the memory (in a way, a literal one) of two brave women —full of fear and impotence, but also of hope and pride— victimized by such wars. First is Miriam, a former immigration employee in Cancun who was unexpectedly jailed without criminal evidence under the charge of “human trafficking”. Her case, as she later discovered, qualified for the incredibly infamous category of “pagadores” (Sp. for payers), a judiciary expedient whereas innocent citizens appear as guilty before public opinion and so, forced to pay for the crimes of others that justice has been unable (or unwilling) to process. What’s more outrageous is the further elimination of these “wrong men” anticipated in such cases, which for Miriam meant being transferred to a private prison managed by a cartel, to which her parents were forced to pay for her life over many months. Miriam tells her story in retrospect; beginning with the day she was released on “absence of proofs”, as she was matter-of-factly informed, and then returning to the moment of arrest, that changed her life forever. Her account of tortures and hardships endured in prison is a harrowing litany, another instance of human cruelty at its most unthinkable. Among its most shocking moments, just to mention one, is her witnessing of the assassination of a young emigrant, Martín, whom she had met minutes before his death, and who was killed in cold blood by a man she describes as a monstrous creature acting possessed in a room full of his victims’ corpses. For her own dismay, sometime later she would meet him again in a church, where he was fervently praying together with his family.

Then we have the story of Adela, whose daughter Mónica, a young university student, disappeared without trace ten years ago. Adela’s testimony mirrors Miriam’s. In fact, they both deal basically with the same drama, structured on “the missing” motif, if only that, from Miriam to Adela, the absent one changes from mother to daughter, and that while one of the stories is set in the past, the other unfolds as suspended in an unfinished present. As Miriam points out, at the moment of her arrest, it was her son left behind whom she thought of first. And, from then on, the idea of her freedom remained associated with the hope of getting back to him. This, given Adela’s testimony as a mother that still waits for her lost daughter, holds a symmetry connecting both stories of “orphan” mothers. The stories are also told by women, traditionally among the most vulnerable subjects in any society. However, as it brings in a new perspective, that of parent’s grief, Adela’s account posits new interrogations that deepen the emotional dimension of the narrative. The point is not about knowing if mother and daughter will meet again, but something more disturbing: whether the girl is still alive. Adela, on the other hand, has also fallen prey to the police. Even though she knows the identity of the young man who delivered Mónica to her kidnappers, a classmate also called Martín, Adela could never manage to have him arrested, presumably due to his family’s close links with the police. What’s more, instead of doing justice for her, all she got from the police were threats, until she was forced to run away and become an outcast with the circus where she works as a clown turned into a sad reminder of her nomadic fate. Nonetheless, this extraordinary woman still believes in her daughter’s return and so keeps fighting for justice, while finding comfort in the solidarity of other women and relatives aware of her grief and frustration, as well as in the kids she trains in acrobatics and performance, somehow filling the affective gap left by the missing Mónica.

On the other hand, the formal approach of the film makes a remarkable contribution to its atmospheric narration, setting up the distressing tone that pervades it. According to their missing status, neither Miriam nor Mónica will ever appear on camera. The former’s account is conveyed by a disembodied, phantasmal voiceover, the one of someone coming back from death, and whose visual counterpoint is just a journey across the country that evokes Miriam’s return from Matamoros (northern Mexico), where she was imprisoned, until arriving in Cancun. A monotonous voice-over flows inexorably; the verbalization of horror holding up an emotional distance that multiplies its impact, reminiscent of old Fengmin in Wang Bing’s monumental documentary where a seemingly impassible lady recalls during three hours the atrocities inflicted to her family during Chinese Cultural Revolution. Regarding Mónica, what we hear is Adela’s voice, intertwined with long stretches of silent footage while she’s immersed in the daily routines of circus life, which by definition embraces the idea of a physical journey, that of itinerancy. However, in both cases the visual approach implies a deep empathy in the look, a subjective transfiguration of space —be it the ruins of a prison, the shadowy interior of a bus or the giant shape of a barely lit circus tent hovering in darkness— which somehow translates to the inner agitation of an often invisible narrator. The country addressed by the camera is a hardly recognizable Mexico; gloomy skies anticipating a storm a whole forest shaken as a huge wave under rain and wind, highways fraught with checking points taken by army and police, the silent faces of passengers and pedestrians conjured by a life that keeps its apparently normal, inescapable course. Any of them, as the filmmaker points out, might be the protagonist of the stories told in Tempest. There are moments when the image takes on a dreamlike quality, as with the sleeping young girl whose face, resting on the bus window, is seen through the lines drawn on the glass by the falling rain, looking like fine wounds left by the reflection of an ominous reality on her body exposed to the horror of a nightmare. It’s this poetic processing of the testimony, arising from the disjunction between visual and aural realms, between a detached voiceover and the expressionist approach to the image, that makes Tempest a fine and moving piece of work documenting Mexican life in this stormy beginning of the 21st century.

Edited by Tara Judah