Friday, December 30, 2011

SFIFF 2011 / PSIFF 2012: THE TINIEST PLACEThe Evening Class Interview With Tatiana Huezo

I caught Tatiana Huezo's remarkable documentary The Tiniest Place (El lugar mas pequeño, 2011) at the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) and had the welcome opportunity to sit down to speak with her. The timing couldn't have been worse, however, for transcribing our conversation as I was in the middle of relocating from California to Idaho where—almost immediately—I was caught up tending to family emergencies. Several months later, I guiltily agonized over missing my initial window of opportunity; but, now, with The Tiniest Place continuing to gather accolades on its festival trajectory, and with its arrival at the 23rd edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival in their True Stories sidebar, I welcomed the chance to revisit our conversation.

Born in 1972 in El Salvador, Tatiana Huezo moved to Mexico City at age five. A graduate of the prestigious Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), she's the recipient of the Gucci / Ambulante award, a grant established in 2007 to support new and established Mexican documentarians. Huezo has taught documentary films at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The Tiniest Place is her first feature-length documentary. Winner of awards at numerous festivals, including Visions du Reel (Best Feature Film), Documenta Madrid (Audience Award), Lima International (Best Documentary), Monterrey International (Best Mexican Film), DOCSDF (Best Mexican Documentary, Best Cinematography), Abu Dhabi (Jury's Special Award), and DOK Leipzig (Best Documentary),
The Tiniest Place continues to astound audiences with its message of perseverance and hope.

Variety, Robert Koehler has championed the film, naming Huezo "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema" and proclaiming that the "film's beauty would be more than enough to recommend it, but Huezo's work, supported by Ernesto Pardo's incandescent cinematography, is more than simply gorgeous. It manages a highly unusual synthesis of personal human stories . . . ."

The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden describes the film as "impressionistic and precise" and "a beautifully rendered memory piece that insists on the necessity of memory" honoring the "will to live and the way unquenchable grief informs . . . joy."

Huezo follows in a longstanding Latin American tradition of equating the diminutive—the "tiniest"—with that which is most intimate and human and (ultimately) the best in mankind. My thanks to SFIFF publicist Julieta Esteban for setting up the interview and to Claudia Prado of the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica for her translative assistance.

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Michael Guillén: Tatiana, tell me about your educational background and how you came to work with the Centro to produce The Tiniest Place?

Tatiana Huezo: I studied at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC) where I specialized in cinematography and film direction. After that, I pursued a Masters degree in documentary production at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain.

Guillén: By any chance, when you were studying in Spain did you meet José Luis Guerín?

Huezo: Yes, he was my professor. I only had two classes with him but I admire his work immensely. He has had a profound influence on my own work.

Guillén: Having spoken with several Mexican filmmakers, it strikes me that a current trend in Mexican filmmaking is to have collectives of artisans working together. Are you involved in a similar collective at the Centro?

Huezo: I'm not working within a Mexican collective, no, partly because I have been away from Mexico for a while living in Madrid for several years pursuing my studies; but, I'll be returning to Mexico soon.

Guillén: One of my continuing interests is in the evolving nature of national cinemas and whether or not that is a category that can be effectively used anymore. You're Mexican, studying in Spain, and producing a documentary about El Salvador. How, then, would you define yourself within the context of a national cinema?

Huezo: I define myself more as a Mexican because I grew up in Mexico and that's where I received most of my education—it's my culture and it is the spirit informing my work and what I do—but my origin is Salvadorian, that remains inside me, and that's what gave origin to this particular project. I left Mexico to continue my studies because there was no place in Mexico for me to go for post-graduate studies in documentary filmmaking. In fact, there are no post-graduate programs for filmmaking in Mexico, which is why I went to Barcelona to pursue my Masters. Despite the fact that the core of my education was in Mexico—and I had
marvelous teachers!—what determined my true documentary training was the education I received in Barcelona. It was the encounter between these two cultures—my Latin American roots and the European vision—that was important in my formation as a filmmaker. It was important for me to encounter and see these different ways of telling stories.

Guillén: Fascinating. It confirms for me my sense that many young filmmakers are coming out of these cross-cultural encounters. In my estimation, this is true world cinema that is neither defined nor delimited by national cinema(s). You're a classic case.

At the Q&A after your screening at the Pacific Film Archive the other night, I was intrigued by your story about how—once your arrived at Cinquera, El Salvador, your grandmother's birthplace—a woman approached you, thinking you were someone else who had disappeared during the war. Can you speak to what you felt from that experience?

Huezo: It was a disconcerting moment because it was my first time to visit Cinquera and my first walk through the village by myself. There are only four to five streets in Cinquera and I was walking near the town plaza. I was looking around with profound curiosity because there were traces of the war everywhere, in every part of the town, on the walls, on the street, and suddenly while I was walking down one of these streets an old woman threw herself at me, hugged me and wouldn't let me go. She kept saying, "You haven't changed. You haven't changed." I felt ashamed because I wasn't the person she thought I was. I felt like I couldn't live up to her expectations. In that moment, I wanted to be the person she thought I was and to be able to hug her back with the same intensity and affirm, "Yes, I am that person." But, instead, I had to tell her that she was making a mistake and that I wasn't that person . She insisted, "But, yes, you
are! You are her! You came back!"

Guillén: A bit scary, but sad?

Huezo: Yes, it was both scary and sad. Right now, speaking to you about this, I'm also remembering an image of an older woman sitting inside a house that had no roof but that had bars across the door. She was just sitting there combing her hair. It was a surreal image because it was just these four walls, the door with bars, and no roof. I think this old woman was not quite right in the head and I suspect her son had left her locked up there so he could go out to work.

On one of the days after we were done shooting, we saw an old man walking with a cane who kept hitting the pavement with his cane as if he were still fighting, cursing out loud against the army that had invaded Cinquera. It's clear to me that there are many people who lost their minds during the war, especially the older people. Don Pablo Alvarenga, who is in my film, told me that when the people get to a certain age, when they're really old, it seems like they disconnect from reality and return to the time of the war. They spend their last years in a delirium of the war.

I don't want to place the woman who hugged me so intensely in exactly the same category as these older mentally-troubled people, but she did have a bit of that quality in the way she recognized in my face the face of another from that time.

Guillén: Which reminds me of the important statement made in your film that these survivors are living in two worlds at once. Let alone your assertion that you made this film about war because you have never experienced war. What is it you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Huezo: It was Don Pablo who made that statement that the survivors of Cinquera are living in two worlds at once and Don Pablo is a poet. Describing how the survivors experience the past and the present at once is
his poetry. He is always able to make images out of his words to communicate what he is going through. When Don Pablo said that to me, I knew this would stay in the film and that, in fact, it was the exact metaphor that this film needed because this is an experience shared by all of the people in that town. The people of Cinquera live among ghosts. This is their reality.

Guillén: It spoke to me. As someone who lived in San Francisco through the AIDS pandemic in the '80s when I lost so many friends and loved ones, I can attest to living in a comparable state where the past and the present are irrefutably fused. I survived and currently live a healthy life; but, I constantly walk among ghosts in a zone where the living and the dead are caught in the grip of a death horizon.

Your film's strength lies in its respect for Don Pablo's poetic insight, expressed—interestingly enough—in the film's structure, which replicates this notion of two worlds existing at the same time through the relationship between your visuals and your voiceovers.

Huezo: You're right. There are those two structural elements of the visual and the oral; but, I hadn't thought of them in the way you're expressing them.

Guillén: Yet this is how it seems to me. You've caught your subjects in moments of visual repose where they're either quiet, thoughtful, even happy, but the voiceovers speak to a more horrible world of witnessed atrocities. You've structured the film so that they're both going on at the same time.

Huezo: I knew when we made the film that there would be these two discourses—the oral and the visual—and that they would be independent of each other; but, I also knew that by putting them together it would create a third discourse.

Guillén: That third discourse is the film's healing property; the documentary's remedy, if you will. As someone who lives, as I mentioned before, in two worlds caught in the grip of the death horizon, it's exactly by living in that way that I am able to honor the past and keep living. I honor the past by carrying it with me at all times.

Huezo: I have to be honest and say that all of this process was somewhat unconscious for me when I was making the film and something of an experiment; but, what I learned the most from making the film was how people learn to live with their pain. This has to do with those two elements combining into a third discourse which you've called healing. Healing is not about forgetting or about stopping suffering over what has happened. Healing is about learning to live with it.

Guillén: Or what my mentor Joseph Campbell once termed: "Joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world." Another intriguing theme in your film, both subtle and controversial, is that—normally in such beleaguered situations as this—people would turn to religion; but, I got the sense in your film that established religion had been replaced by the religiosity of personal memories, which is to say spiritual insight.

Huezo: Religion was, in fact, the origin of the uprising of these people and at the core of their rebellion. Many of the priests who arrived in this town practiced liberation theology. They helped open the people's eyes.

Guillén: Ah. I'm familiar with liberation theology as practiced among indigenous people in Central America, specifically Guatemala, and its role in populist uprisings against oppressive forces. Ironically enough, one of those oppressive forces was the authoritative hierarchy of the Catholic Church itself so it's always been a bit of a conundrum for me to associate liberation theology with the Catholic Church, even though it is without question one of its most important ministries, albeit controversial. Controversial, precisely, for opening eyes.

Huezo: Once a week the townspeople meet on Thursday nights and Pablo reads to them from a Latin American Bible; one I've never seen before. They cling to every word that was taught to them by the priests who practiced liberation theology. They read fragments of this Bible and try to relate its message to the lives they are living. They translate those fragments to the injustices of the present and to their needs in the present. Their minds are strong!

Guillén: Which explains why liberation theology and its teachings among the marginalized people of El Salvador proved such a threat to the military.

Huezo: Totally.

Guillén: Along with Pablo's voiceover, the voice of Elba Escalante, the woman who had lost her daughter, was simply amazing, which leads me to ask how you gained the trust of the five main voices used in your film? How did you single them out from the town's inhabitants? Why were they willing to tell you their intimate stories?

Huezo: Pablo is a friend of my grandmother's. He's something of a grandfather to me as well. Elba—who is nicknamed "La Sirena" (The Mermaid)—is the mother who had lost her daughter and I first saw her at the same time the audience first sees her: lying there on her side. After the trip I took to Cinquera with my grandmother, I returned and lived there for two months and it was during that time that I encountered and got to know the personalities who became a part of my film. In my first encounter with Elba, she started telling me stories about how her daughter was killed. It was almost as if I were someone who lived in Cinquera and she was just filling me in about what had happened since last we met.

Guillén: Elba is an amazing personality. She radiates life in the way she takes care of her plants and broods over her chicken eggs. Despite what had happened to her—perhaps because of what had happened to her?—life pours out of her.

Huezo: Elba is incredible. She's a woman who lives with much passion, full of life, but when she talks about her daughter it's like she breaks in half, transforms, and becomes dark. These two extreme sides of her, all of her light and all of her darkness, quickly made her one of the main "characters" of the movie.

Guillén: It stands to follow that those who are caught in the grip of the death horizon are often the best storytellers.

Huezo: Definitely, yes.

Guillén: Let's talk a bit about your immaculate sound design, right down to the final cock's crow in the closing credits, which somehow makes the audience feel good or hopeful as they're getting up to leave the theater. My main complaint about investigative documentaries is that they often take you to the heart of difficult issues without either offering remedy or guiding you back out. Something about that cock's crow brought us back out of the film into our everyday lives.

Huezo: For me it was important to tell the story of Cinquera as if it were a fairy tale that had monsters. Not only was it important for me to capture the dignity of these people but I wanted to close the story with that because this town in the end was not trapped in darkness. They continued to work their land and to take care of their animals. They continued to educate their children. This is their light.

Guillén: I respect that you portrayed that dignity in alignment with nature.

Huezo: They have a special connection and consciousness and love of the land, which accounts for why they returned to lift Cinquera from the ashes. Pablo, for example, has a garden and he has tried very hard to keep out transgenic seeds. The people of Cinquera have transmitted to me their love for this forest. For me, indeed, the forest is one of the film's characters.

Guillén: The voice of that forest truly emerged in your sound design: the bird trills, the little ditty about the frogs, all of that is a voice I'm familiar with having worked in Central American rainforest for many years.

Huezo: I collaborated on the sound with my excellent sound designer Lena Esquenazi and my direct sound recorder Federico Gonzalez. Federico understood that we had to capture every available sound in the forest; in other words, the soul of the forest in sounds. So he went out at different times of the day to capture different atmospheres: the sounds of the morning, the sounds in the afternoon, the sounds at night. We ended up with recordings of all the sounds of the forest at different hours of the day and night available to us. I'm proud of the direct sounds in the movie, which I think are very good. It was a challenge for Federico because he recorded it all on his own; he didn't have an assistant. He had all his equipment and two microphones, was carrying everything himself, walking miles and miles and miles. It was very hard for him. He was a warrior! Afterwards, I sought out a woman I deeply admire—Lena Esquenazi—who I felt was one of the best sound designers existing in Mexico. She lived in Mexico but now she lives in Buenos Aires. We worked on the sound design together for two months.

Guillén: Can we speak about editing? To return to the idea of how you circled us out of the film's central trauma to provide hope or to allow us to experience the hope felt by the survivors of Cinquera, you achieved this through scenes that revealed their hope in increments: the scene of Elba and the eggs hatching, for example, and the scene of the cow giving birth. Where I really felt the horror of the war wash away was in the scene with the rainfall. Can you speak to how you placed those moments in the film to reveal this sense of hope? To create that feeling of relief and acceptance?

Huezo: Even before shooting the film, I had an idea of the film's structure. This structure was a very simple structure but it was what guided the shooting of the film. I wanted to tell the structure of the story as if it had happened over three days. Maybe that wasn't so clear to the audience that three days have passed, but in my mind that is how I structured it. In the first day I wanted to show the tranquil everyday life of the characters with very small brush strokes of what had happened in the past.

The second day was the war; a total immersion in the past. The first sequences of this second day were of the people who were young at the time of the war and who are my age now. I asked them to tell me their memories of being children during the war. From their childhood stories, this was how I opened the door to their past.

I knew that the cave was the heart of the movie and that the scene in the cave would be placed at the end of the second day. The cave was like going down to Hell; the moment of pain and loss. For me, the cave is a symbol above and beyond what happened there. I knew that the cave would be the meeting point for all of their stories and that's why I filmed that sequence where everyone was sitting in the cave telling their stories.

The third day was their going back to their everyday life. As a spectator, I was hoping we could reveal another dimension to that everyday life. If we had skipped over the second day and only shown the first and third days, the truth of their experience would not have had an impact. I was confident that the spectator would give a different value to the everyday actions shown on this third day after knowing who they were and what they suffered. After having spent time with them in the cave.

As for the pregnant cow, that was sheer luck. [Laughs.] To have the birth of this calf in the third day of this narrative structure was perfect for dramatic effect. And as for Elba, I had seen her nurturing the eggs on my first visit to Cinquera and—when I returned to shoot the film—I asked her to repeat the activity. I knew I was going to have chickens being hatched on the third day of the story but I didn't know I was going to have the calf being born.

Guillén: If I may say so, this three-day structure is religiously brilliant. Along with the obvious Christian parallel, there is the mythic undertone of the harrowing of Hell found in various world mythologies. Three days is the numerological template for resurrection. The Latin root for the word "religion" is religio whose meaning is influenced by the verb religare, which refers to that string that connects and binds the material to the immaterial, the obligation of soul to spirit. So when you're talking about having this thread that runs through the three days, I consider this a marvelous stroke of brilliance. Congratulations!

Huezo: Thank you.

Guillén: So what's next for you?

Huezo: I have an idea for a story about how one makes a child one's own, even if they are not a biological child; but, I don't like to use the word adoption. Still, it's that idea. There will be two parallel stories. One is of a woman in search of a child for adoption and the other is of someone who has been happily adopted and is now older and going out to search for his biological mother. It's a story about identity and, in a way, it's about loss as well.