Credit: Radiola Films
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

The Echo — Tatiana Huezo [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 28, 2023

Classified as a documentary in the Berlin festival catalog, Tatiana Huezo’s new film The Echo is more accurately clarified as a scripted film shot on real locations with actual people performing staged or otherwise choreographed variations of their daily lives. It’s not as heady as that might sound — Huezo isn’t interested in a post-modernist exploration of narrative vs. nonfiction conceits a la Kiarostami or Jia, but instead seems content to mimic the formal contours of a traditional art film. Thankfully, The Echo is a charming, frequently beautiful movie, whatever its specific genre provenance.

Working with cinematographer Ernesto Pardo, Huezo documents a family residing in the titular village, located in Puebla, Mexico. Huezo reportedly spent 18 months in the region, capturing the changing seasons and waning fortunes of the local farmers. Focused primarily on women, the film begins with Luz Ma and two of her younger children rescuing a sheep from a muddy embankment. Luz Ma then delicately bathes her own elderly mother with the help of teenage daughter Montse. It’s three generations under one roof, each tasked with their own labor. Youngest daughter Sarahi and her brother Tono are still learning the ropes about how the farm runs, allowing Huezo to capture footage of animal shearing and food preparations; Sarahi spends her free time playing school teacher to her stuffed animals while Montse talks with a friend about joining the military for the money or taking her horse-riding skills to the city (we are told that Mexico City is only a couple of hours away, but it feels like it might as well be on another continent, so cloistered is this community).

Given all this, The Echo can sometimes feel shapeless, not so much structured as arranged in a loose (presumably linear) manner. Instead, Huezo allows events to transpire with varying degrees of emphasis; key dramatic elements like Montse’s departure from the home and death in the family happen suddenly and with little accentuation, while languid landscape shots occupy almost just as much screen time. But key ideas still unfurl along the margins, as we gradually gather that money is tight, the family patriarch is absent for long stretches of time, and a slowly encroaching drought is threatening the livestock. It’s never bluntly stated, but Luz Ma is clearly worried about her children growing up without their father, as well as his retrograde ideas about what constitutes “women’s work.” When her husband (in one of his very brief appearances in the film) complains that he needs a day off, Luz Ma calmly explains that she never gets a day off, even on the weekends. Another moment finds the father’s offscreen voice instructing Tono to leave his dirty dishes on the table, as cleaning up is “a woman’s job.”

But these interludes are just part of a larger tapestry; the landscape, wind blowing through trees and grass, and other poetic longueurs are equally as important as food prep, building a fire, or birthing a calf. One long sequence finds the family skinning and gutting a dead sheep, hoping to make some much-needed money from selling the meat. There are also frequent scenes of little Sarahi at school, emphasizing a kind of pedagogical urge that suggests at least the possibility of a brighter future (Sarahi teaching kids even younger than herself about the Zapatistas and the Mexican Revolution is a contender for scene of the year). The implication is clear enough — the future is not written, minds can be expanded, and social roles can change. Huezo ends the film with footage of a coming storm, ominous-looking but also a bringer of much-needed rain. Sometimes a harbinger of doom and a sign of hope can look startlingly similar.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.