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Girlhood Interrupted

With her films "Prayers for the Stolen" and "Tempestad," Tatiana Huezo explores what it means to mother children in a violent world.
Ela Bittencourt
Tatiana Huezo's Prayers for the Stolen is showing exclusively on MUBI starting April 29 in many countries in the series The New Auteurs.
Prayers for the Stolen (2021).
Tatiana Huezo gets survival in a violent world. She joins many young Latin American filmmakers who were raised with the specter of escalating gun and human trafficking and drug-lord warfare against the backdrop of decades of ineffective drug policies and systemic corruption. But in Huezo’s relatively brief career—she has one feature documentary and now one fiction under her belt—this Mexican-Salvadoran has established herself as a director who uniquely understands survival as a pulse, a pause, between breaths, and, ultimately, a lifetime partiture, in which pauses bracketed by fear and ruptured by violence shape and color one’s life. Huezo translates this syncopated tempo, and the extended breathless pause, the suspension in brief moments of grace, into a filmic language that’s firmly rooted in the everyday, intimately tied to the lives of the women she portrays, and yet tinged with a sense of the uncanny.
A large part of the time-space of Huezo’s remarkable documentary, Tempestad (2016) is a pausa. A young woman’s returning to her hometown, after being jailed in a “self-governed” prison, a.k.a. one run by a drug cartel. The director takes us on a bus with the protagonist (to recreate her coming home, I imagine)—to stops along the way, where military police interrogate travelers, to bus depots, where weary faces blend into the crowd, and finally, on the road, with landscapes fleeting beyond the window, and passengers dozing as dusk falls. In this crepuscular time-space, the woman tells her story of imprisonment, torture by the cartel, threats on her family and her own life, and extortion. At one point, she witnessed a murder of an adolescent boy by a crazed man—a man she saw later in her town, going inside a church, and coddling a two-year-old baby. In the disjunction of image and narration, we never see the woman speak in this section. Instead, her voice flows, mellifluous, in the voiceover, her presence spectral. She says she wondered how she was to return to her home, her son—how what she’d known as her life could ever be restored. Meanwhile, the cinematography, with its lush dark tones and incessant motion pulls us further into the pausa—we too feel that it might be hard to emerge and face the trivial brightness of day. At one point, the bus passes a human figure walking on the road stark naked and with arms raised over its head—an actual person, a dream, a vision? It’s but a flash, but in the context of the story, it emerges as a haunted figure from the woman’s past.
It would have been enough for Huezo to establish the uncanny tone with such authority, but in Tempestad, she further connects it to the stories of other women—particularly of an older survivor, whose daughter was kidnapped by the cartel, likely into sex trafficking. Out of one voice grows a community of women, their stories too of how to piece together the life that remains, how to push past grief, past fear. In the film’s most gorgeous scene, the women start cracking fart jokes, while seated under an empty tent (the older survivor works at a circus as a clown, a double-figure of quietude, respite, and joy amidst deepest grief). Here are the women survivors, mirthfully teasing each other, laughing to tears, before actual tears come. They muse at first about being so irreverent, talking trash while having microphones tagged to their clothes, for the whole world to hear. They joke about their role as “actresses” – a word that signals how far they’ve come to see their lives as the ones they will now shape. It’s perhaps the most psychoanalytic, healing moment in the film, yet it wouldn’t have registered with both poignant levity and eerie force had Huezo not established first life’s other register—that of pausa, suspension. Life’s richer than a single note; in her film, Huezo captures this richness by both the uncanny and the earthy, observational approach. Or rather, these two registers are one.
In her debut drama, Prayers for the Stolen (2021), Huezo decided on a slightly different approach. The pausas no longer seem to contain entire lifetimes, but are instead distinct, contracted moments, in which time stops, only to pick up its habitual pace a moment later. Take the scene in which the film’s adolescent protagonist, Ana (Marya Membreño), is at a small-town beauty-salon with her mother. The women are having their nails and hair done. Then suddenly shouts are heard; outside, in a scene established in a quick shot, a new cartel drives by, and, to show off its impunity and might, engages the army troops stationed in town in a brief standoff. Women and children dive under tables. Ear-splitting gunfire erupts. A moment later, a pausa. The firing stops. Women emerge from under the tables; a second later, order’s restored; voices return, though perhaps somewhat more hushed. The women are once again doing their nails.
Huezo maintains this remarkable attention to pacing—in fact, making pacing the very substance of her film—throughout Prayers. It tells the story of Ana, who’s only a small girl when we meet her (at first played by the wonderfully expressive Ana Cristina Ordóñez González). Ana and her girlfriends do many things that young girls do: She attends school (though teachers are constantly leaving, under threats from the cartel), goes swimming on hot summer days, chats about boys. But there’s one thing that Ana learns is forbidden: She must not have beautiful flowing hair that so many girls in her age group covet. Ana and her girlfriends have their braids chopped off, their heads shaved to boyish crews, to hide their sex. Still, the girls are clearly filling out. Ana thus grows under her mother’s admonitions that her gender is a threat. Her life will be one of gradually shedding things: First the hair (girls will disappear from the village, sometimes a body is found, to underscore that the cartel threat and fear are real), then the boyfriend (she’ll fall in love, only to see him grow restless and join up the cartel); her friend (her best friend will be kidnapped by traffickers); then, finally, her home (when it’s time to flee).
At the heart of the film’s turning scene, after which Ana’s mother finally decides to risk everything to leave the village, lies another extended pausa: The cartel has come to the village, yet again, looking for young girls to kidnap. Ana’s mother dug up a pit a long time ago, covered with mats, to serve as a hideout from the traffickers; Ana hides inside it, holding her breath, while the cartel’s man interrogates, threatens, and punches her mother, all in Ana’s sight. It’s a visceral scene; one might say that cinema doesn’t lack for them, with so many filmmakers (from Carlos Reygadas to Julio Hernandez Cordon and Amat Escalante, to name a few) capturing the impact of violence on South American communities. Yet again, Huezo’s insistence on the rhythmic texture of life in the shadow of violence—and her insistence that this rhythm underscore resilience and survival, not just life cut short, which so often becomes the grist of cinematic drama, but a life that must go on and sustains its preserving rhythm—is incredibly moving. At every beat, in both her documentary and fiction cinema, one senses that Huezo has asked herself deeply about what it means to mother children in such a violent world. Her films present the act of mothering as one that understands that this beat, this pausa, is also a heartbeat; the resilience to violence as profound as the stirrings of a mother’s heart when she caresses her child.

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