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Human trafficking is given a human voice but not quite enough of a human face in Tempestad, the second feature documentary from Salvadoran, Mexico-based documentarian Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place). Consisting of two female narratives, one illustrated with often only tangentially related footage of a cross-country trip by bus, the other with shots of the middle-aged protagonist’s life as a circus clown, the film has two powerful, loosely connected stories to tell but not a unifying vision that could package the often-potent material for maximum impact. After a premiere in the more experimental Forum section of the Berlinale, this should travel to other nonfiction festivals and Spanish-language showcases.
The film’s main narrative consists of an extensive, audio-only interview with Miriam, a young mother and Cancun Airport employee who was arrested on false charges of human trafficking and then thrown into a jail that was controlled by the Gulf Cartel, who forced her family to pay her hundreds of dollars each week to keep her alive. As explained by her in a voiceover, she was one of the country’s numerous “pagadores,” someone who was literally made to pay for the government’s need to be seen to do something about a major problem. With her (and her colleagues) locked away, the government had the reassuring headline that the problem had been dealt with — never mind she wasn’t actually guilty.
Since Miriam doesn’t want to (or can’t) appear on camera, Huezo shows footage of a group of people, including women of almost all ages, who travel by bus from one side of the country to the other. It gradually emerges from Miriam’s voiceover that she made a similar trip across the continent to go back home to Tulum from the prison where she was held, some 1,250 miles away in Matamoros (on the border with Texas, just south of Brownsville). What Miriam has to tell is, of course, harrowing, including such details as the fact the Cartel, which controlled every aspect of prison life with the police or state authorities entirely absent, asking her family to pay $5,000 as a “fee to respect her life,” only to then ask $500 every week once they paid off that first sum.
But often the footage that accompanies Miriam’s story isn’t related in any meaningful way to what she says. At a certain point, she talks about suffering from the stifling heat in prison while Huezo and co-editor Lucrecia Gutierrez Maupome show footage of the bus travelers in the pouring rain. This creates a disconnect that undermines what seems to be the general idea behind the accompanying footage, namely that Miriam’s story is but one among many and could’ve happened to any of the people on that bus.
Miriam’s story is told backwards, with the film starting with her recounting her release from prison before backtracking to explain how she got there. The chronology, though not entirely linear, is not hard to follow. But the film’s second story, involving Adela the circus clown, is not only visually very different, since Adela and her family and colleagues don’t mind being filmed during their day-to-day activities, but is also more problematically structured. Adela’s story, also told in voiceover, starts about 30 minutes into the film and then starts alternating with Miriam’s account.
However, Huezo has opted to not immediately reveal the reason for Adela’s inclusion in the documentary. The first few times she pops up, she offers only general talk about the children she teaches and her own three children, including a description of the difficult pregnancy of her second child, Monica. By not making immediately clear how the two stories are connected, the overall force of the argument is weakened each time it switches back to a story that’s still forming. And Huezo also made the ill-advised decision to not show Adela perform until after the big reveal, so she can play the show-must-go-on card for all it is worth, which feels decidedly out of place.
There’s no denying that stories about the wider consequences of human trafficking, which involve people who might be falsely accused of it or families that have to deal with the loss of a loved one, are important. But the way Huezo has organized her material doesn’t do it any favors.
Production companies: Pimienta Films, Cactus Films, Terminal
Writer-Director: Tatiana Huezo
Producers: Nicolas Celis, Sebastian Celis
Executive producer: Jim Stark
Director of photography: Ernesto Pardo
Editors: Lucrecia Gutierrez Maupome, Tatiana Huezo
Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman
No rating, 105 minutes
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