Tatiana Huezo on ‘Tempestad,’ Her Poetic Doc About a Childhood Friend’s Wrongful Imprisonment

Tatiana Huezo’s masterful documentary Tempestad is both lyrical and political. Focused on the violence and impunity that afflicts Mexico, the film is driven by the voices of two women, Miriam and Adela. As we listen to their stories, Huezo offers us images of the cross-country journey that Miriam took after being released from a cartel-run prison, where she’d been held for her alleged involvement in human trafficking. After no evidence of her participation in trafficking was found, Miriam was eventually let go, becoming instead a public scapegoat for an increasingly common problem in Mexico.

Interwoven with the harrowing tale of Miriam’s stay in this torturous environment is the story of Adela, a circus clown, who’s been searching for her abducted daughter who went missing over 10 years ago. By focusing on these women’s stories in voiceover, Tempestad forces you to look closely at the seemingly unrelated imagery that flashes before you. Accompanied by a haunting score by Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman (Maria Full of Grace, A Monster with a Thousand Heads) the documentary  speaks to the increased sense of insecurity and fear that permeates rural roads in Mexico. Evocative of Terrence Malick, but infused with a staunchly political message, Tempestad has one of the most indelible final shots of the year, the first and only moment where you see Miriam in the film.

The film, which screened in Mexico as part of the Festival de Cine Ambulante and later got a short theatrical run, was shown in New York as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Afterwards Huezo sat down (along with a translator) to discuss her powerful film. Find some highlights below.

On Her Relationship With Miriam and Adela

Well, Miriam is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I met her when I was 17 years old, over 20 years ago. We both wanted to get into filmmaking. Many years later—four years ago—I ran into her after not having seen her for a long time. And that was a year after she’d been released from jail. It was very difficult for both of us to meet given the circumstances. She was very wounded, both physically and psychologically. Something that struck me about that encounter was that a friend of mine, who I’d known for so long, couldn’t look me in the eye. A bit later, as if wanting to explain what had happened, she sent me a handful of writings she’d done in prison, a series of poems. She’d always loved writing and she writes very beautifully. And in her words, scribbled over these dirty pieces of paper, was the heart of this film. The poems didn’t make it to the final cut of the film but they were the origin of Tempestad, the inspiration behind the film. Afterward we sat down and I asked her if she’d be comfortable and ready to speak about what happened. She agreed and that’s when we started working on the film.

It took close to six months to find Adela. I wanted to find a second voice who could balance out the other story, one which could function as a mirror, an echo. I wanted a mother looking for a disappeared son or daughter. Right now there are thousands of parents looking for their children. When I learnt about Adela, and later when I met her, I found her to be an extremely strong and articulate woman. She’s very thoughtful in a very special way even as she’d suffered over ten years of struggle, of living all those years with that uncertainty of what happened to her daughter. That’s the most difficult thing that these families go through, the uncertainty of not knowing. So that’s how both of these women came into the film.

‘Tempestad’ Courtesy of CLAUDIA TOMASINNI
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On The Dangers Involved In Making The Film

All of us in Mexico are a bit paralyzed by this fear that’s been instilled in us.

I live in Mexico. And we were afraid while we were making the film. We had to have a very specific strategy while shooting, and once we finished it we had to evaluate the risks involved. We’re living in a time when journalists are being killed for doing their work. Perhaps the fear was the hardest challenge of making this film. I had to decide at some point if I was going to be paralyzed by this fear or if I’d go ahead with the story. All of us in Mexico are a bit paralyzed by this fear that’s been instilled in us, that’s now part of our unconscious, that’s deep-rooted. This film is about breaking the silence, and the challenge was to fight against that fear and forge ahead to tell these stories.

On The Film’s Structure

I tend to work a lot on a film’s structure. I don’t know how to shoot a film without it. When I started to imagine how to tell this story, I had the journey in mind. I had this idea that the film could begin with Miriam leaving the prison. Doing my research I did the trip that she’d done. To me it was very clear that I had to follow this journey, from North to South. So I thought I’d thread this trip with the accounts of what had taken place in the prison and then I had in mind this changing landscape that you’d get to see. By chance, when I was doing research, it happened to be the rainy season so I spent a lot of time witnessing these storms, these darkened skies. And that just seemed so appropriate to me to represent the emotional turmoil of these characters.

On Miriam’s Current Plight

Miriam doesn’t know exactly, by name, who sent her to jail. Or, maybe she’s too scared to share the name. But she knows they’re very powerful people. They’re people from the Instituto Nacional de Imigración, which is where she used to work at as an immigration agent. They were the ones who accused her and led to her incarceration. Now she’s decided that she’s going to fight this and has begun to ask for help. And a lawyer has shown some interest in her case. She’s now suing the state. The problem is that she has no money—in Mexico, in order to have access to justice, you need money. She hasn’t worked for six years and her name is listed as a human trafficker. But she’s going to fight to scrub that and she’s very emboldened to do so.

On The Film’s Symbolism

I wanted to represent that her life, her home had become this abyss.

Yes, the film’s ending is totally symbolic. It works on a couple of different levels, and some of them do speak to this Mayan underworld. But my intention for those final shots was to depict Miriam’s homecoming. She was medicated for many months. She couldn’t get out of bed. She really couldn’t be in the world. I wanted to represent that her life, her home had become this abyss. And I did it by shooting in this cenote [a sinkhole that contains groundwater], where at the bottom you see this hollow, clouded forest floating. I had this image in my mind even before I began working in earnest on the film. I knew what this final image was going to be. And so I went to some lakes and tried out to see whether that worked. I went to the Caribbean and had this diver take a camera and shoot there and it wasn’t really working. This diver then told me, you have to go to a cenote called El Pit which is over 100 meters deep. And we did, and we tested it out and it was perfect. The water was crystal clear and we got the silhouette that I wanted. It was the most expensive shot in the film and it took a lot of work to convince my producer to get this shot. But it was worth it, as he soon found out.

This Q&A has been translated from Spanish by the author.