Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beauty, horror, sadness -- life! -- in Tatiana Huezo's masterful doc THE TINIEST PLACE

The beauty is front and center for all to see -- in some of the most brilliant, colorful, gorgeously-framed photography I've witnessed in some time (it's by Ernesto Pardo); the horror and sadness comes through the film's narration, as denizens of once and future village of Cinquera -- decimated during the 12-year Civil War that swept El Salvador beginning in 1979 -- tell the tales of the fate of their relatives, friends and neighbors. Life, in all its expansive, rich and befuddling glory, is what you'll mostly likely feel by the end of this documentary from Mexican filmmaker Tatiana Huezo (shown below) and which is part of the First Feature Film Program of the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica of Mexico.

The irony of THE TINIEST PLACE  (El lugar mas pequeño), a generally quite un-ironic movie, comes via the disjunction of the visual and narration. We rarely see a person actually speaking to us. Instead s/he is engaged in some activity -- fishing, cooking, cleaning, building, making art -- and the words fly by as we watch the gorgeous countryside or verdant jungle. Initially I found this combination oddly jarring but eventually quite welcome, for if we got a consistent dose of the tales told here (which become increasingly dark) while staring into the sometimes tortured faces of the tellers, it might prove too much to bear. Either that -- or we'd feel the kind of unpleasant, in-your-face cliché that we too-often witness from filmmakers & TV reporters who evidently believe that rubbing our faces in the suffering of others will prove just the ticket.

Instead, Ms Huezo's more interesting combination makes us aware -- of the place, the people and the situation that existed during the 1980s, as El Salvador's Civil War literally wiped some small villages off the face of that country and even off its official maps. (If a city doesn't exist, then neither, it would seem, does its horrible history of politically-motivated murder.)  As gorgeous as is the photography here, just as fine is the narration provided by Cinquera's citizens. In language that, as translated, seems both plain and poetic, simple but lovely, we are told of what happened here and to whom and what it meant.

We hear a lesson about a priest and the placement of a chair. "When one frog sings, they all sings," a woman tells us and then does a damned good frog impression. A man who bemoans his inability to drink coffee explains what we get from books (there was, at the time of filming and probably now, no TV nor Internet in this village), and the fellow's reasoning seems as original as it is thought-provoking. Another describes his own quiet insanity: dreams of machetes followed by the uselessness of his life now. There is a wonderful subtlety to many of the stories -- of children used as wartime messengers, of the importance of having several names, and how and why these names can suddenly change. The tales sneak up on you, but few hit you with terrible force until we finally hear of the time toward the end of the village, as what left of the community tries to hide in a hard-to-reach cave. Then come the stories of death, after which, seeing the photos and names of the dead seems a fitting memorial.

After the war, one fellow explains, it was particularly difficult to deal with the feeling of "no trust." But Ms Huezo's movie ends with a quiet and genuine praise of life. An activity like a marching band suddenly gives off  a thrill of intense pleasure, and the birth of a calf seems both poignant and hopeful. One fellow, a fisherman, has the best line, one that all societies might take to heart: "An organized people, a people with memory, is more difficult to oppress."

The Tiniest Place will not open until one week from tomorrow, Friday, August 19, at the IFC Center here in New York City, and will also have a one-week run in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Sunset 5 theater, beginning September 2.  (We hope it will open elsewhere, eventually). It's yet another in this year's near-constant line-up of terrific new documentaries.

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