The Forum section of the Berlinale is where many look to find exciting new voices or more adventurous forays into what cinema can do away from the red carpet requirements of the festival's headline competition section. (This year, the Berlin competition has included several films that normally might have been invited to the Forum, chief among them Lav Diaz's 8-hour A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, screening in front of a jury headed by Meryl Streep towards the end of the festival.) I will be spending much of my time in Berlin scouring the Forum and reporting back on what pleasures I find.
The Mexican documentary Tempestad is a prime example of what makes the Forum rewarding, taking a risk on an ungainly but ambitious movie which deserves to be seen. The second feature by Tatiana Huezo, Tempestad ("Storm") begins as one woman's story, a woman being released from prison and traveling home to her son. We do not see her, we only hear her telling us about her release. What we see is a travelogue of footage of this trip home, Huezo and her team—a cameraman with an essential eye towards both beauty and the character of faces and landscapes, and a sound design partially live, partially reconstructed—filming not the woman's journey but their own version of it. Their version of her journey, grounded by her narration, is at once uneventful and something grander, spanning the passing country and its people. The woman's story shifts to how she was rounded up and wrongly arrested for human trafficking, imprisoned in a "self-governing" women's prison run by the cartel, and charged exorbitant fees to be kept alive. As we travel onward, heading closer to the woman's freedom, we also travel backwards in time as she tells us of her incarceration. All this we hear as we see faces on the bus, people at way-stations, police at checkpoints. This one's woman's story threads its tendrils into the landscape and all these other people: who are they and why are they traveling, who are innocent and who are criminals, whose stories cannot be told?
And then, with considerable risk, Tempestad shifts from the prisoner's tale to that of another woman: a mother whose daughter was kidnapped in an unsolved crime. A thin but sinister thread of human trafficking is the only direct connection between her tale of middle age and that of the young mother who was wrongfully imprisoned. For the prisoner, the film travels with her tale; for the mother, we stay with her at a circus, where she lives and works. This circus and its magnificent tent is presented as run mostly by women, who are training their daughters and other girls to perform acrobatics and clowning. Where the prisoner's tale was centered on her time in jail, the mother only tells us of her missing daughter later, after we learn much of her family's history in the circus and how she has raised her other children.
This shift from a recounted trauma at once amplified and spread out through images of traveling through stormy, highly policed landscapes, catching portrait-like glimpses of unknown persons, to the stable vision of this circus community is jarring. But the shift back and forth between stories—at first hard to distinguish because we never see the women speak their stories directly, lending the voices and images an overlapping, blending quality— elicits rich contrasts between the roving lostness of the ex-prisoner and the stability, strength, and practiced grace of the circus. This diptych grows richer as it becomes clear that Tempestad is sketching two different stories of traumas of injustice practiced on Mexican women and how these traumas are lived and then absorbed into the women's very being and the world around them. The mother's circus appears an image of resilience...yet one puncturable by random terror. The prisoner's journey home is one of expansive loneliness and open questions, yet a journey clearly shared by so many others. The delicate images of circus performances and the rain-swept Mexico passed through on the way home: Tempestad sees these rough, modest lives imbued with compounded grief and possibilities—metaphysical, even—of transformation. The stories of these two women are far bigger than they may think they are.