The Tiniest Place: Film Review

Recent Central American history by those who lived it, told with cinematic power and grace.

The first feature-length documentary from Tatiana Huezo Sánchez centers on a remote village in the center of El Salvador.

At once impressionistic and precise,The Tiniest Place (El Lugar más pequeño) is a beautifully rendered memory piece that insists on the necessity of memory. The focus is a remote village in the mountains of El Salvador, decimated in the country’s civil war of the 1980s and rebuilt by its surviving residents. When they first returned, one woman notes, the frogs sang. She also recalls the bones and body parts they had to gather and cart away — the remains of guerrillas and national guard soldiers, enemies intermingled.

Such is the balance between hope and despair, a potent poetics, in Tatiana Huezo Sánchez’s first feature-length documentary. Screening this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Place has the historical insight and visual eloquence to ensure not only further fest berths but also an ardent critical response that could bolster an art-house release in the hands of the right distributor.

The Salvador-born and Mexico-raised director spent two months in Cinquera, her grandmother’s native village, and the intimacy and trust she established with the townspeople is evident in every frame. Her decision to record only the audio of their testimony was an essential ingredient of that trust, and it shapes the piece in a brilliant way. Working with two editors, Huezo Sánchez layers the villagers’ thoughtful, sometimes harrowing voiceover recollections with cinematographer Ernesto Pardo’s fluent footage of them as they go about their daily lives ­— lives most Westerners would call simple, devoid as they are of electronic gadgets. The lucent imagery and rich sound design make the verdant setting immediate.

The villagers find meaning and joy in their connection to the land, which they’ve worked for generations without owning. Gradually, their stories pinpoint the moments of awakening that separated “the aware” from “the sleepers” as war spread across the country. Residents recall the terrors and atrocities they endured, the choices they made: toddlers who saw their mothers beaten and raped, teens who joined the guerrillas, families who hid for two years in a startlingly narrow cave, revisited with the filmmakers.

“Closure” is not a part of these Salvadorans’ vocabulary; rather than expecting to recover from their losses, they carry them with a sense of clarity: insomnia for one man, nightmares for another, but also the hard-won knowledge that “a people with memory is more difficult to oppress.” In Nuevo Cinquera, a piece of a military helicopter is prominently displayed, as is a mural that pays tribute to the village’s dead.

Just as the residents of this town honor the most difficult moments of their lives, Huezo Sánchez and her astute film honor their will to live, and the way unquenchable grief informs their joy. Framing her observations subtly yet with full impact, she’s there when that insomniac, who once served as lookout for government soldiers, tends his pregnant cow, and when a woman who had to bury the mutilated body of her daughter lovingly coaxes a hen to incubate eggs not her own.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: A Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica/Foprocine production with the support of Beca Gucci-Ambulante
Director: Tatiana Huezo Sánchez
Producer: Nicolás Celis
Executive producers: Henner Hofmann, Liliana Pardo
Director of photography: Ernesto Pardo
Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman
Editors: Paulina Del Paso, Tatiana Huezo Sánchez, Lucrecia Gutiérrez
Sales agent: Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica
No MPAA rating, 109 minutes