A profound expression of the twin powers of life and death animates Tatiana Huezo’s sublime documentary debut, “The Tiniest Place,” in which residents of a Salvadoran village wiped out during the country’s bloody civil war recall the horrific past and reflect on a vital present. The subject of the Central American wars of recent decades have rarely received such a level of artistic treatment onscreen, making this an essential item for prestigious fests with solid vid and tube sales in the wake of critical huzzahs.
The film’s beauty would be more than enough to recommend it, but Huezo’s work, supported by Ernesto Pardo’s incandescent cinematography, is more than simply gorgeous. It manages a highly unusual synthesis of personal human stories, affectingly told on a soundtrack designed separately from the images (that is, few talking heads), with precise deployment of syncopated montage and an accumulation of details during the filming in the highland jungle village of Cinquera. The result is one of the most impressive debuts by a Mexican filmmaker since Carlos Reygadas’ “Japon,” both linked by an audacious embrace of cinema’s power to prompt the deepest thoughts and feelings.
A calmly assembled array of portrait shots of Cinquera residents (none identified onscreen) and a brief recollection of some of the horrors of the 1980s war precede a lovely, wordless montage of the village waking to a new day (edited with musical precision by the team of Huezo, Paulina del Paso and Lucrecia Gutierrez).
The words, though, begin to flow, as one villager after another provides personal perspective on their lives and terrifying experiences during the war. An elegiac mood defines the early sections, including pastoral scenes of breathtaking beauty as a cow herder tends to his animals while describing how many villagers, including himself, became politicized in the 1970s. Some were more educated than others, but most became conscious of the enormous class differences in their community and country; indeed, the term for those not attuned to the political changes afoot was “sleepers.”
The sensitive viewer/listener may begin to feel a gnawing sense of doom as the villagers’ stories proceed into the early phases of armed conflict, with some of the older ladies admitting they couldn’t even conceive of what war might be like in their traditionally peaceful climes. Descriptions of bombing attacks, brutal roundups of residents and rape of women by the increasingly despised Salvadoran army set an intense aural picture and contribute to a growing feeling of doom.
Huezo manages something remarkable here: She finds subtle ways, in the present-day setting, to illustrate the audio testimony, sometimes literally, sometimes by metaphor. This is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in a sequence in which a man who had joined the rebels and hid in a nearby bat cave with others for three years re-enters the cave and explores it. The all-encompassing darkness and eeriness would be hard to stomach for a day, let alone three years, underlining the war’s physical extremes.
The director trained at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra school of nonfiction filmmaking, whose tradition of poetic images and rich textures is vividly on display here. At the same time, this is an absolutely personal docu for the Salvadoran-born, Mexico-based Huezo (whose grandmother comes from Cinquera), and can be viewed as a statement of survival by and for Salvadorans.
Yet the universality of “The Tiniest Place” lifts it far above the many previous titles that have explored aspects of El Salvador’s strife. A grandmother, seen urging a hen to lay eggs, remarks that she had been tempted to give up altogether after seeing the total destruction of her town, but instead found “a new angle on life.” As does Huezo’s film.
Production values are world-class, accented by a growling, furtive score by Leonardo Heilblum and Jacobo Lieberman.