Film

Singular Doc “Tempestad” Offers a Bus Trip Into the True Horror of Mexico’s Cartel War

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Few pronouncements could ever be more terrifying than what Miriam, one of two subjects in Tatiana Huezo’s extraordinary documentary travelogue Tempestad, heard when the authorities dumped her at a Matamoros prison to serve time for a crime she didn’t commit. “This is the territory of the cartel,” she says she was told. “This is a self-governing prison, and we’re in charge here.” Miriam tells us all this with flat matter-of-factness, even when her tale turns to torture (both experienced and witnessed) and death. “The fee for respecting our lives was $5,000,” she tells us. The cartel had contact lists for the families of incoming prisoners; from these they selected targets to threaten with kidnapping if the fee was not paid. After that initial investment, the cartel demanded hundreds more dollars each week.

We hear this story over the course of a trip across Mexico, as Miriam, upon release, travels from the gutted border town Matamoros to Tulum, her home, south of Cancun in the Yucatán. Miriam calmly narrates, never speaking onscreen, as we watch her country pass by. First, it’s the harsh scrubland of the north, where police pull the bus over and search the bags of every passenger. Soon, as her tale turns to her slow discovery of how to survive, we see more and more green, the humped hills and mountains of San Luis Potosí and the Hidalgo. The trip is a soothing, sometimes impressionistic blur: rain, wipers, traffic, sleeping passengers, roadside food stands, lush stretches of grass and weeds, a dog sniffing around a tollbooth. The lights of trucks, on a rainy night, reflect as flat wafers in the windows. This isn’t her journey, precisely; instead, it’s a (literally) moving study of life going on in a country in crisis, and of what it might be like to attempt to integrate back into that world after facing trauma. The perspective is not, as we’re used to in movies, of a keen-eyed cameraperson painstakingly capturing the essence of a place. Instead, Huezo’s film shows us what you would see on that bus when you’re glazed over, about to fall asleep. Occasionally, a vision jolts us, just as on a real road trip: Is that a naked dude padding through the mud? Intimate and formally inventive, Huezo’s approach situates us right there beside Miriam — it’s as if a new acquaintance is unburdening herself to trek south together.

Half an hour in, a second voice joins Miriam’s. Adela, a clown in a traveling circus, also has seen her life shattered by the cartels. She’s more animated, and her narrated sequences — which make up perhaps a third of the film — get us off the bus. We see her and her circus life, all tents and camaraderie, as her fellow clowns gab and laugh, as their children stretch and practice acrobatics. It’s little surprise when Adela confirms, at last, that her own daughter has been kidnapped and probably trafficked. Huezo presents Adela’s and Miriam’s accounts in counterpoint, one woman finding comfort in her itinerant community and the other alone in the crowd on the highways. The finale, featuring a performance from those clowns and acrobats, is stirring and somehow devastating.

Tempestad
Directed by Tatiana Huezo
Cinema Tropical
Opens October 20, Anthology Archives

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