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Panama: Mexico’s Tatiana Huezo on Voices, Abduction, Prison

Celebrated Mexican docu filmmaker’s “Tempest” screens at IFF Panama’s Iberoamerican Portal

Since its presentation at works-in-progress showcase Impulso Morelia in 2015, “Tempest” (“Tempestad”) by Mexican-Salvadorean filmmaker Tatiana Huezo has been to more than 60 film festivals worldwide, collecting awards in Berlin, Lima, Havana, Madrid, Cork, and many others.

Huezo’s poignant full-length docu – her second – tracks a woman’s 1,242-mile journey home from prison.

Her debut feature-length doc “The Tiniest Place” (“El Lugar Mas Pequeño”) reaped a host of awards and glowing reviews across 50 festivals. Its producer, Nicolas Celis of Pimienta Films, also produced “Tempest” along with Cactus Films and Terminal Films. Huezo spoke to Variety from her mountain eyrie in Morelos.

Tell us how you started on your career path?

My first two shorts were fiction, and were part of my studies at the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica; sci-fi short “El Ombligo del Mundo” was my thesis. I shot and directed it, as I originally wanted to be a director of photography. There were few female DPs then, 15 years ago.

What led you to make documentaries?

After leaving school, I made my first documentary short, “Retrato de Familia,” which was about bigamy, two sisters in love with the same man. This experience made me want to delve deeper into the art of making documentaries. While watching “En Construccion,” a docu by Spain’s Juan Luis Guerin, I noted in the credits the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona where I decided to do my Masters in Creative Documentary. I had incredible teachers: Victor Kosakovsky, Joaquim Jorda and Ricardo Iscar. Their solid training set me on my career path. I then made my first feature documentary,” The Tiniest Place.”

That received quite a number of awards, didn’t it?

Yes! To be honest, I didn’t expect it. I shot it in the village where my grandfather was born, which literally vanished from the map during the civil war in El Salvador. I didn’t grow up there, I didn’t experience the war but I observed it from afar and heard of relatives who were slain or disappeared. It was an important re-encounter with my roots, with my grandfather’s birthplace and family.

Would you say that superimposing a voice over images marks your filmmaking style?

I can’t say I have a style, but in “The Tiniest Place” I opted to use the ‘voice in off’ and have voices bear the weight of the docu in terms of narrative and emotion. It was an experiment, which I wasn’t sure would work. I wanted to find new ways to tell a story through two different conversations, one oral, the other visual.  I never filmed the interviews. The voices of my subjects were also very particular, like this woman with a gravely, smoky voice who sounded almost like a witch. The voice transmits a lot of things, you enter into the core of the characters without seeing them. It opens up a whole panorama of the human being.

Does the voice also play an important part in “Ausencias” your documentary short?

Yes, in “Ausencias” you hear only the voice of Lulu whose voice was very disconcerting, almost otherworldly to me. It sounded empty, dead, as if from another realm. I realized that the voice is the window into a person’s soul. It was a challenge to transmit the despair and exhaustion of a woman whose husband and son have been kidnapped.

So you used the images of the walls of a decrepit building to transmit this despair and emptiness, correct?

Yes, I decided that the walls, full of cracks and stains, could impart the feelings of exhaustion in her voice because in reality, the relatives of someone who has vanished are profoundly drained, exhausted; they’re tired in their heads and in their hearts. They never rest. When I screened “Ausencias” in Switzerland, a Chilean girl approached me to say that she had been kidnapped during the Pinochet regime, and recognized that same dead tone of voice in her family.

When I found Lulu, after a six-month search, she possessed the serenity of someone who could see her situation from a distance without minimizing it. It had been more than four years since her husband and son had vanished, with no help from the authorities. There are many theories behind their disappearance but I didn’t want to dwell on them.

Tell me about “Tempest,” what is it about?

It traces the journey home of a woman who crosses Mexico from north to south, more than 2,000 km [1,242 miles], after her release from an extremely violent prison. She had been accused of human trafficking, with no real evidence against her.

How long was she imprisoned?

Nearly a year, not long but long enough for the damage to be irreversible. As we trace her trip home, she relates what happened to her within her soul, within her head. It’s a trip that’s suggestive and emotional on all levels, that searches for the meaning of fear in a human being.  Before making this docu, my first premise was to discover what violence-generated fear can do to people. It’s a fear that paralyzes; a kind of sickness of the soul that impedes you from getting on with life, from evolving.

Do we see her? If not, was that her choice or did it matter to her to be on camera or not?

We never see her, we only hear her as she takes us by the hand and guides us with her voice and her story. There are numerous visual elements that relate the story and forms part of the sensorial, emotional construction of the film.

The faces, the atmosphere, landscapes and light change as she travels from north to south, reflecting the changes she underwent in prison. She didn’t care if she was on camera or not.

How long was the trip?

The trip normally takes three days but filming took 10 weeks. We edited it for more than seven months. Prior to filming, research took a year.

How did you get the idea for this docu?

Three years ago, a box arrived, filled with poems on scraps of paper. It was from a friend from my teens who I hadn’t seen in 10 years. They were dark, full of terrible but beautiful imagery that reflected the deep incalculable life she led in prison. Now that I see this film from a distance, I realize that there’s an invisible war in Mexico; nobody recognizes it as such but we’re like orphans from justice, from institutions, from authorities. This story reflects this feeling of vulnerability, that something terrible could happen to you, but absolutely nothing will be done about it.

What are you working on next?

I’m developing another documentary called “The Echo” where I’ll be working this time with children and teens. I found this tiny remote village where the faces of even the young are weathered by the harsh climate and living conditions of this beautiful hamlet.

But I very much want to explore the world of fiction next. This narrative script I’m writing is quite an ambitious endeavor on my part and I’m very excited, but I can’t reveal any more details for now.

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