“Quería ver luz” – these are the words director Tatiana Huezo used to describe to us the impetus behind El Eco (The Echo), her latest documentary, which premiered in February at the 73rd Berlin Film Festival. The titular village is a remote speck in the highlands in the state of Puebla, Mexico, where Huezo spent four years embedded with three families to chronicle the cycle of the seasons, planting and harvesting, and of the community. The result is a quiet film of patient observation that captures the miracle of life in the quotidian and the everyday. It’s a portrait of a place and its people and how they shape each other, about ancestral wisdom and the yoke of traditions.

With El Eco, the Mexican director continues her impressive trajectory as one of the most original and distinguished visual artists of her generation. Huezo was born in El Salvador in 1972 but moved to Mexico at the age of four with her parents. Trained at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), one of Mexico’s most prominent film schools, and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, her films have screened at the most prestigious festivals, including Cannes, the Berlinale, San Sebastián, Mar de Plata and Morelia, gaining national and international recognition and winning numerous awards. Huezo’s most acclaimed film so far is Noche de fuego (Prayers for the Stolen, 2021), which premiered at Cannes in 2021 and was Mexico’s submission for the Oscars, and it was subsequently picked up by Netflix USA (where it’s currently still available). This feature film opened in Mexico in 100 theatres, the only national film to do so to date, an extraordinary achievement in a market still dominated by Hollywood. For El Eco, Huezo won both the Documentary Award and the Encounters Best Director Award at the Berlinale, no small feat either. 

While Mexican cinema was for many years internationally best known for the fabled tres amigos – Guillermo del Torro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárittu – in their wake a new generation has emerged, particularly of women filmmakers. Among them are Fernanda Valadez, Natalia López Gallardo, Alejandra Márquez Abella, Issa López and Lila Aviléz (who was also at the 2023 Berlinale). While clearly a member of this newer generation, Huezo’s films also stand apart from the features of her peers. Most notably, and Prayers for the Stolen notwithstanding, Huezo is a documentary filmmaker. Building on numerous shorts, she burst onto the scene with El lugar más pequeño (The Tiniest Place, 2011), followed by Tempestad (2016), both premiered at the Berlinale. 

The Tiniest Place examines the impact of the Salvadoran Civil War on a small rural community that was massacred during the 1980s, and their village was literally erased from the map. About 80 people managed to flee, hiding in a cave in the jungle, where they lived for two and a half years. In Cinquera, the hometown of her grandmother, the director records the accounts of the survivors, many of whom had joined the guerrillas during the war. In voiceovers, we hear them speaking of the murder of a father or discovering the mutilated body of a daughter; adults who were children at the time remember seeing scattered brains on walls. Some 14 years after the war, having lost everything, villagers started to return to the town, swept away the bones, and slowly rebuilt. One woman says, when walking through the streets she’s speaking with ghosts. The moaning of the dead can still be heard in the jungle around them. Off-screen one older woman says, “It was an echo that was left there. So many souls had died there, see?” The harrowing off screen accounts of the villagers are overlaid with images of them going about their daily lives, or of falling rain and billowing clouds, capturing the beauty of nature and the dignity of quotidian life. “I envisioned the film as a psychic landscape (historia de atmósferas),” Huezo said in a 2013 interview. “Since the dead are those present in this town, the challenge was to film from the point of view of the dead.”1 A rich sound design furthers a sense of being immersed in the place. A stunning visual metaphor is provided by two massive rocket shells, which now serve as the bells calling the parish to service, signalling the continuous presence of the war amidst the innocence of life in the jungle. 

El lugar más pequeño

Like The Tiniest Place, Tempestad is a devastating film about the impact of violence. Huezo here tells the true story of Miryam Carvajal, a dear friend of the filmmaker, who was falsely accused of human trafficking, arrested by the police and transferred to a narco-run prison in Matamoros, on the US-Mexico border, where she spent almost a year. While there, she was mercilessly tortured, and witnessed horrendous scenes before being suddenly being released. “We call you payers,” her court-appointed lawyer tells her, “people who pay for other people’s crimes.” She then had to make her way back alone and penniless, across the length of the country to Cancún. As Miryam describes her ordeal in voiceover, heard but not seen, we are shown random people traveling on buses, while outside images go by of crumbling buildings, often in the rain, representing the abyss Miryam now faces. The viewer knows that the people we see on the buses could at any moment suffer the fate that Miryam had suffered. And that they most likely know it. 


By keeping Miryam’s identity hidden, the filmmaker not only spares her the added violence of being filmed in pain, but also displays her profoundly ethical side as a filmmaker. Huezo never exploits people’s pain or is intrusive when they are narrating terrible events they have experienced. As a counterpoint to this deeply traumatic story, and trying to find a story with more light, Huezo inserts the story of Adela Alvarado, a circus artist who is looking for her missing daughter who was kidnapped ten years ago by human traffickers. While that experience is hardly less traumatic, what makes Adela’s story more hopeful is her sheer will to find her daughter. Despite repeated death threats from both criminal groups and the police – as the film reveals, there’s barely any difference between them – Adela continues in her search undaunted, a symbol of Mexican women’s revolt and resistance in the face of violence and impunity.

Huezo’s two documentaries clearly show that the director belongs to a long Latin American tradition of both testimonial literature, first established by Miguel Barnet’s Biografia de un cimarron/Biography of a Runaway Slave (1966), in which he narrates the life story of Afro-Cuban Esteban Montejo as told to him, and of protest filmmaking, including the ground-breaking Bolivian Yawar Malku/Sangre de Toro/Blood of the Condor (Jorge Sanjinés, 1969), documenting the Peace Corps sterilisation campaign of Aymara women in Bolivia. Linking the personal with the political, and the act of witnessing with protest, this new genre in literature and film came to dominate the cultural landscape of Latin America for the next decades. Huezo’s documentaries place her as an heir to this tradition, but also as an important innovator. She shifts her focus from protest and outrage to film as a quiet, deep portrait of life in remote rural areas of Mexico, places where the state is conspicuously absent. Her particular interest are the women and children who bear the brunt of the extreme violence that has befallen Mexico since the 1990s, and which came into full view in 2006, when President Calderón began his so-called war on drugs (also adopted in the United States) that escalated the violence to hitherto unimaginable dimensions. In the places where Huezo decides to work, the human cost of the failed state is revealed by the absence of the police (who, when present, often work hand in glove with the narcos), the subsequent impunity of criminals, and the long reach of narco power and money, which extends its tentacles deep into local and state governments. 

In both The Tiniest Place and Tempestad, Huezo assumes the role of being a listener and a co-witness to deeply traumatic experiences. She centre-stages the rural, thereby shifting the dominant focus of Mexican films away from urban centres, particularly Mexico City. Her concern is for the most vulnerable, those who have most suffered from the abandonment of the state, poverty, lack of health care, drug violence, the ever-deeper incursions of illegal mining and other desperate form of environmental extraction. Huezo’s patient and revelatory way to uncover the impact of violence stands in stark contrast to mainstream Mexican and US-productions. The violence in Huezo’s documentaries is never shown, and the faces of the people, as they tell their stories, are never revealed either. As viewers we become aware that the most traumatic details most likely have been omitted. In each film, she searches for a visual and sonic landscape commensurate with the internal landscape of the protagonists. As a result, her films resonate with the viewers long after they have ended.

For her feature debut, Prayers for the Stolen, Huezo adapted Jennifer Clement’s novel of the same title. While it’s suspense-driven narrative makes for a very different dramatic arc, Prayers for the Stolen shares with Tempestad a focus on the impact of drug-related violence on adolescent girls and their mothers. In a small village in the state of Guerrero, mothers are in fear of their daughters being kidnapped by members of the drug cartel, who force them into prostitution and slavery. Much of the film revolves around the coming of age of three young girls, as they realise the dangers that they will face specifically as women. This film, too, is an intimate portrait of a community, filmed in close proximity and often from the girls’ point of view. Interestingly, in the part of the novel that Huezo did not include in her film, a young woman, like Miryam, is thrown into prison for a crime she did not commit, while one of her classmates is kidnapped by narcos, similar to Adela’s daughter – even though the stories of Huezo’s film and Clement’s were created separately, they echo.

El Eco

With El Eco, Huezo once again turns her camera on rural Mexico. The ever-present threat of violence, so dominant in Huezo’s first three films, here recedes into the background (without completely disappearing). As in her short Ver, oir y callar (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil) which is part of the 2015 omnibus film El aula vacía (The Empty Classroom), produced by Gael García Bernal, the filmmaker’s special interest is in the children. From early on, they tend to livestock and work in the fields. They also learn about the ubiquity of death. El Eco is a place where childhood ends early and children have to grow up fast. The film opens with Luz Ma and her younger brother, Toño, helping their mother rescue a lamb caught by rising water. Later in the film, they will witness the birth of a lamb and the slaughter of a sheep. Montse, a girl in her teens, is seen bathing her elderly abuela (grandmother), and swells with pride when her mother tells her that the old woman is her responsibility now. Towards the end of the film, the entire village turns out for the abuela’s funeral, honouring the woman who was the first to move to El Eco. While this cycle of life is common in observational documentaries, here the emphasis is not on how natural and given that cycle is, but on how the children are shaped by it, and on how kind and caring they all are. The village is a place, Carlo Chatrian writes, that conveys “a sense of a world where there’s no gap between people and places.”2

The process of learning plays a key role in the children’s life, both at school, where some students double as tutors for others, and at home. The way young Sarahí explains the Mexican revolution to two children barely old enough to read, with hands-on exercises, is both hilarious and touching, because the poverty and injustice against which Emiliano Zapata rebelled is not a thing of the past for this community. The girls also learn about the roles society assigns them. Sarahí, an innate and talented teacher who has saved up to buy her school uniform, is told by her mother that she cannot go on because there’s no money for tuition. “Men don’t do dishes,” Toño’s father explains to his son. Like most other men in the village, he has to travel far to find work and is mostly absent from the family. While there actually is an echo in one of the valleys, which the children playfully explore, the title’s real significance points to the imprint the parents leave on their children, creating in them an echo of the traditions that will shape their future. Breaking out of that cycle, be it by striving for more independence or through open revolt, is a challenge rarely taken up.

Huezo’s strength lies in finding images that express what the children are thinking or feeling, such as looking into Montse’s eyes after her hopes to participate in a horse race have been dashed. The film is strikingly photographed by Ernesto Pardo, her long-time collaborator who also shot her previous documentaries. Often only at arm’s length from his subjects, Pardo produces images that convey tenderness and sensitivity, catching moments of delight and profound empathy in an environment in which both nature and tradition create seemingly insurmountable challenges for the women. In contrast to other observational documentaries, though, Pardo does not hide his camera. While the children appear not to notice it, the filmmakers make no real efforts to obscure their presence. They have become accepted members of the small community in which they have spent a lot of time. As B. Ruby Rich noted, in El Eco “every single person, every city council is listed in the credits (…) It is clearly not an extractive documentary.”3

 El Eco is a quiet, empathy-driven film that is exemplifies a kind of filmmaking that deeply cares about its subjects and its subject matter. Like Huezo’s other films, it is premised on the filmmaker’s willingness to stay for long periods of time, to observe, to empathise, and to listen. Yet with her statement “I needed light,” Huezo signalled that the new film goes in a different direction than her previous three films, which all revolved around the impact of structural violence, particularly on women and children. And yet the light that Huezo sought and found also has shadows – the uncertainty and threat caused by narco violence is palpable in El Eco, too. While lacking the actual eruption of violence that Prayers for the Stolen portrays, and that her earlier documentaries allude to, danger still lurks everywhere – be it the extreme weather, the drought that threatens the livestock, the torrential rains that open the film and trap a sheep in a quagmire, or the timber poachers that roam the woods at night. No matter how remote El Eco may be, in a place largely devoid of men, the women and children remain the most vulnerable.

* * *

The following interview was conducted in Spanish on February 18, 2023, during the Berlin Film Festival. Halfway through the conversation with Tatiana Huezo, we were joined by cinematographer Ernesto Pardo.

You often state that your project is to narrate Mexico. In what way is the story of El Eco representative of the country as a whole?

I felt the need to tell stories about Mexico from another angle, from a different place, following routes that are different from the ones taken in my previous films. I wanted to turn my gaze to the care for the land, the lives of campesinos, to the upbringing of children, and to those moments that perturb you in early childhood. I wanted to narrate Mexico from this different place, to create a portrait of the rural world. This is a form of life that produces wonder, and that is also full of difficulties. Danger underlies it all. There is a constant feeling that every village in Mexico is being menaced in one way or another, danger is everywhere. It has to do with the narcos, and with the plundering of natural resources, in which the narcos are also now involved. The film is also about the dispossession of campesinos’ lands that results from this. But the focus is not on that brutality. I worked on that painful subject for 15 years and my soul needed to rest. I needed light. I needed to feel again the force of life and the strength that is in these human beings – their beauty, and the enormous goodness in many of these everyday moments that allow life to flourish. 

When you began working on this project, did you have a story in mind that you wanted to tell? 

I wanted to tell a story about growing up and about those traces or marks imprinted during early childhood. But it all was still very abstract, really. My only compass was that I wanted to make a film about what it is like to grow up, when everything is new and a surprise, and when we look at the world from another, magical place. This is also the period that stores these first moments when traces emerge that mark us for life. And then there I was watching my daughter grow up, every day. That is a time when certain things come into conflict, the surprises she experiences vis-à-vis many things, the discoveries, the emotion she feels for nature, for a storm, her cat. Those are very fleeting moments. And I feel a great need to cherish this, to preserve it and hold on to that. But as I said, it was all very abstract. When I first went to El Eco, I witnessed the drastic changes in the climate and in the landscape. I knew immediately that this was going to be the context that would emotionally accompany the children over the course of one year and the cycles of life, of sowing and of harvesting,

While sparely used, the music is very important in this film, because it creates a sense of foreboding that leads us to expect a dramatic event or a climax, which then never comes. One wonders: Is that climax going to be about the drought and climate change, or about the narcos lurking in the woods, or will it occur when poachers cut down trees illegally? 

Yes, the music is a bit suggestive. Audiences who have seen Prayers for the Stolen and Tempestad will have come to expect violence, because in some way or other all my films to date have been about the violence underlying everything in Mexico today. It’s a form of violence that makes life, and in particular the lives of women, so vulnerable and precarious. Women are always very exposed in violent and brutal contexts. This film does not go there. It goes in an altogether different direction, because I felt an enormous need to explore the world of children and childhood, and what drives children’s lives. This really fascinates me. In the case of this community, the villagers actually take turns guarding the woods at night to prevent illegal logging, which is happening all over Mexico.

The photography, colour palette, and sensual landscape (both sonorous and visual) is markedly different in every film but your emphasis is clearly on the image. You show us people close up, much as if you were painting a portrait. What is the role of photography in your films?

I trained in sound at the CCC but I had a wonderful (and alcoholic) Polish photography teacher who taught us how to observe, how to look. He said the technical aspects of film are easy to master but what is hard and where real skill and talent are involved is in knowing how to observe. He would take us out somewhere and ask us to simply sit for hours and observe the world around us. I became fascinated by photography and wanted to be a photographer, but cinematography was an exclusively male domain when I started out, so I decided to become a director, so I could do photography. I have worked for over 20 years with Ernesto Pardo. When I find the images in my mind’s eye that I want for a film I describe them to him and he films and films until he achieves the effect I am looking for. In The Smallest Place I knew I wanted the camera to feel like it was swaying above, because it really was a village inhabited by ghosts living amid the survivors. In Tempestad, I wanted the images to allow the viewer to feel Miryam’s state of mind after she was released from the narco prison. In Prayers for the Stolen, which is my only feature film to date, I worked with Dariela Ludlow.

El Eco feels more spontaneous than your other films, with a more open form. The audience discovers things along with the children, and throughout we remain curious what will happen next. What did the preparation for this film look like?

This is the first time that I made a film without a previous script. Before shooting begins, I normally know the dramatic structure, where the climax will be, what the main conflict consists of, who the characters are, etc. The script is carefully constructed to arrive at a specific moment. But not in this case. Here, everything was a very open process, and very, very difficult. It was the most difficult thing I have done in my life because I felt very insecure. There was a lot of uncertainty; it felt like leaping into the void. I was very unsure whether this material was going to be sufficiently interesting, and whether it would have the power to hold a story. And I think the challenge lay exactly there – of finding the magic and the greatness in the smallest and most ordinary of things.

Making of El Eco

[At this point, Ernesto Pardo joins the conversation.]

Ernesto, you managed to get so close to the children without having the camera’s presence felt. How did you accomplish that?

Ernesto Pardo: That took much time, four years to be precise. We spent a lot of time getting to know the people in the village. And after living with them for regular periods of two weeks, they relaxed and forgot that the camera is there.

Tatiana Huezo: It was a steady and constant process over a long period of time. Shooting took a year and a half; we went there every three months and stayed for two weeks. We went to live with them. So we would have dinner together, they would tell us stories, stories of the grandparents, etc. The ties between us were very strong. My daughter came with us too. She went to school with the children from the village. The children themselves became very involved. They learned to use the camera, and when they saw images of themselves, they broke out laughing, and very soon they became familiar with the technical stuff. Some even used the clapperboard. They would ask us, “Am I in the middle of the frame?”, or “Shall I get closer?” They even began to make suggestions: “This looks better like this.” When Ernesto was setting up the lights, they knew that they had to stand where the light was best and in the middle of the scene. They were very conscious of the presence of the camera. It appears as if they were not, but they were. But at the same time, the camera becomes something organic, it was not an obstacle to the development of the actions or the scenes.

Ernesto Pardo: The making of this film also had a lot to do with representation and self-representation. From the beginning the children were aware that they were making a film, and that they were going to be represented. They realised that they were the actors. That awareness allowed them to assume their roles with pride and effort. I think that’s why you see them with such dignity and with such strength and clarity. We had an implicit agreement: we wanted to tell their story and they would be at the centre. 

Did the children also intervene and say, “we want you to film this and or that”?

Tatiana Huezo: No, not at all. But they would say things like, “well this or that is not that important,” or “a cow is going to calf at dawn, don’t you want to come and film it?” 

Who else besides the two of you was part of the crew?

Tatiana Huezo: It was a very small group, seven to eight people in all. Sound, the producers, still photography, my assistant director who was mainly in charge of working with the villagers and the relationship with the families, which is very delicate. Some of the villagers became part of the crew. We were a very small crew. 

When you introduced the screening of your film yesterday, you called the crew ‘los guerrilleros’ (the warriors) – was the shoot such a battle?

Tatiana Huezo: It was! There were many crises throughout those years. It is an area where there is huachicol (the trafficking of stolen fuel), and we had to learn to work with the local authorities, and with those who are in command. The crew had to bear working in that area for a year and a half, in bitter cold and brutal heat, without a hotel. We had to adapt a cabin for the crew, we had to build a bathroom for all because there wasn’t one in the village, the crew even planted the poppy fields you see in Prayers for the Stolen, and so on. Staying in El Eco area for an extended period was not easy. You really need great endurance to do this kind of work, and it involved a lot of multitasking. It was all very taxing. 

And you are all still friends?

Tatiana Huezo: Ernesto and I have been working together for over 20 years, and the same goes for the editor, Lucrecia Gutiérrez. Most of the crew was new and the process was so intense and so long that we became one big family.

Tatiana Huezo and Ernesto Pardo


  1. IMCINE 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhf-v-W4Vp8. Accessed April 28, 2023.
  2. Carlo Chatrian, “Berlinale 2023: The Art of Shaping Reality.” https://www.berlinale.de/en/news-topics/artistic-directors-blog/the-art-of-shaping-reality.html. Accessed March 10, 2023.
  3. Film Comment February 18, 2023. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-berlinale-2023-1/. Accessed February 19, 2023.

About The Author

Silvia Spitta is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College and Robert E. Maxwell 1923 Professor of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America and the award winning Misplaced Objects: Collections and Recollections in Europe and America. Gerd Gemünden, author and editor of 11 books, is the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. His most current projects are a short monograph on Kleber Mendonça Filhos’ Neighboring Sounds and a longer study on realism and the supernatural in contemporary Latin American cinema.

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