What if something terrible happened and the authorities were unable or unwilling to provide recourse? The beautifully crafted and creative documentary “Tempestad” traces the stories of two women whose lives, through no fault of their own, became utter, incomprehensible nightmares. As in her previous documentary, the prizewinning “The Tiniest Place,” Mexican-Salvadorean helmer Tatiana Huezo superimposes her subjects’ recollections over lyrical images that complement the emotions conveyed by their voices. Starting out slow but accumulating power as the intercutting comes into focus, the pic is a sure bet for human-rights-themed and femme-centered festivals, and should have a long shelf life in home formats.
Young mother Miriam Carbajal’s nightmare begins on March 2, 2010, when she and some equally bewildered colleagues are taken from their airport jobs in Cancun, brought to Mexico City, and accused of organized crime and human trafficking. A cynical prosecutor tells her that the political situation demands that the authorities show that they have dealt a blow to organized crime. Carbajal and her colleagues are “pagadores,” literally people who pay for the crimes of others. After placing her in a holding cell for 80 days, the Federal Investigation Agency hands her off to a privately run prison in Matamoros, near the border with Central America.
The Gulf cartel runs the prison in Matamoros. They intimidate and torture the incoming prisoners, telling them they need to pay an arrival fee of $5,000 and then $500 a week to stay alive. Carbajal’s family is not rich, but they manage to make payments. She remains haunted by the fate of those who lack financial support, such as Martin, the young Central American immigrant whom she saw beaten to death with a heavy board.
At about the 30-minute mark, without any preamble, Huezo begins intercutting Carbajal’s account with that of Adela Alvarado, a sad-eyed, middle-aged woman who works as a clown in a family-run circus. While Carbajal launched immediately into her tale, we observe Alvarado and her extended family at work and in their trailers over several segments before she shares the story of her daughter Monica, a naive, studious girl who was kidnapped from her university at the age of 20, possibly by the sons of corrupt police officers. Hearing what Alvarado and her family went through is like encountering the mirror image to David Pablos’s fact-based fiction narrative “The Chosen Ones.” Instead of seeing what happened to the missing girl, we experience what it’s like for her anguished family: The authorities hinder more than they help (including extorting them for money), and the perpetrators threaten to kill Monica if they don’t abandon their search.
The oral (and aural, thanks to Lena Esquenazi’s tense sound design) takes primacy over the visual in Carbajal’s story. We never see her, unless it really is her floating in water in a final overhead shot. Her tone of voice allows us to enter the very core of her character, particularly when she reflects on the various ways the prison instilled fear — a fear that poisons her even after her unconditional release on Aug. 31, 2010, for lack of evidence. Since the film is structured around Carbajal’s 2,000-kilometer bus trip from Matamaros to Cancun after her release, the striking compositions of ace lenser Ernesto Pardo (who also shot “The Tiniest Place”) capture the faces of tired passengers; the bleak, storm-ridden country seen outside the windows; and the armed men questioning travelers at bus stations and checkpoints.
In contrast, we get to see Alvarado, but she is never a talking head. Except for one highly emotional scene in which she is joking around with her nieces, her account of her life and its central tragedy play out over visuals of her present. As she divulges, it is a clandestine life without a house or a permanent address, and one in which she refuses to give up her quest to find Monica, now missing for 10 years.
The literal translation of the Spanish-language title is “Storm.”