Helped by the stunning, perfect poetry of The Tiniest Place, you can begin to understand the intersections of loss and recovery following the Salvadoran civil war.
The Tiniest Place (El Lugar Más Pequeño)Director: Tatiana Huezo
Cast: Elba Escalante, Pablo Alvarenga, Armando Aguilar, Rosi Alvarenga, Rudy Espinoza, Orlando Aguilar, Belyini Barahona
Studio: Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica
US date: 2011-08-19 (DocuWeeks)
When she first to the village of Cinquera, a woman recalls, "The place was wrecked. Nothing. Nothing, only the bell tower was standing, no houses, just bits of wall. Snakes had curled up among the sticks and branches." She heard herself asking, "Is the where we're going to live?" As she speaks, you see the green leaves of lush trees, the dirt path leading through the Salvadoran forest. She and her fellow survivors contemplated the broken pieces of their past lives, the scraps of clothing of the villagers who were killed by the National Guard during the Civil War. "It was nothing but a wasteland," she says, "We made brooms out of branches and swept up." The camera remains low, focused on the brooms in a steady motion: whoosh whoosh whoosh. "The bones of our comrades."
Her memories of what happened after the war, the war that went on for 12 years, from 1979 through 1992, she are suffused with what memories of the war. And as she and four other survivors speak, you see trees and sky, sunlight glistening on water. You hear birds chirp and footsteps crunch. As the woman remembers what she heard during the first night back, she mimics the sound: "Ay ay ay," she murmurs, "The echo. It was an echo that was left there when they were killing them, so many you know." And as the camera draws close to what may stones and shadows and scraps of faded clothing, so close it's heard to tell precisely what you're seeing, you might begin to understand the loss and hope that come together in Cinquera.
Or, more precisely, what was Cinquera. The survivors say more than once in The Tiniest Place (El Lugar Más Pequeño) that the place they knew -- where they grew up or raised children -- no longer existed on their return. Still, they sweep. It's a first step in recovery, in rebuilding the village and living with their memories, a gradual process revealed in Tatiana Huezo's superb documentary.
At least part of the process is facing painful pasts, and each survivor's is slightly different. One elderly man remembers, "About seven years ago, I went mad. I kept having hallucinations, I kept seeing the army, ugly men with glasses and gold teeth." He's watching over two cows in a clearing, the grass wet and the animals grazing. "In the nightmare," the man goes on, "They would set the dogs on me, I feel their teeth eating into me." But as he responded, in his dream, as he raised his machete, and believed he was "lopping their heads off," he woke. "My kids said, 'Dad, let us sleep,' and there I was brandishing the machete across the room." His voice is quiet now, as he sits with his cows. "I still have nightmares," he says, "because even though the war's over, the gunfire I still hear it all the time. There's no fixing me."
Still, he endures, like other survivors in The Tiniest Place. The camera follows behind a woman whose white blouse is alive with red roses: she's gathering eggs, walking from one home to another to find the freshest, so she might tuck them under a chicken she keeps inside her tiny home, the wood floor clean and the walls bare. "Don’t break them," she whispers, "You will love these eggs like they are your own." Her weathered pink door to the right, she leans from her bed to arrange the chicken, the camera cuts to a close-up of her hands pressing gently, keeping the chicken still on the eggs in a nest made of newspaper.
Cut again, to a man in a loose blue shirt, walking with a cane, and then girls in their school uniforms. "The only thing I'm afraid of is that our people will change and turn back to the way they were before, backward in their thinking," says the cowherder in voiceover. "We were totally enslaved by poverty and religion." Again, you glimpse the cows, trees framing them as they stand in sunlight. They turn their heads, seeming to look at the camera, and then away. "There are two seasons here, the man continues, the rainy winter and the dry six months of summer. He smokes his cigarette, watches his cows. One is about to give birth.
While it's easy to identify the film's metaphorical use of the chicken and the cows, of the sunlight and the water, the herder's words stretch beyond what you see. He contemplates the changing seasons, the hawks that fly overhead, from one summer to another, in one nation or another. "I don't know what the sea is like," he says. "The sea is big, right?" he asks his off-screen interviewer, as you watch hawks rising against a pale blue sky and feathery white clouds. "The sea must be a kind of ball," he concludes, "For it to be spinning."
The tiniest place is also the widest, largest place. As survivors also remember their losses, their children who went to war and were killed, you see photos on walls, framed and special. A young woman who is now a mother was a child when her 15-year-old sister left the village to fight, rather than stay and be raped like the other girls. A woman and her husband had eight children. They remember their names, spoken as survivors sit, one at a time, in a plastic chair, in separate shots. Behind them is a clay brick wall, brown and parched. As they sit, they don't speak, only look into the camera, witnesses to horrors you can't know. But, helped by the stunning, perfect poetry of The Tiniest Place, you can begin to understand.