El Eco (The Echo)
(Mexico/Germany, 123 min.)
Dir. Tatiana Huezo
There are filmmakers who move adeptly between fiction and non-fiction, allowing various aesthetic approaches and storytelling methods to intermingle and influence the other. Mexican-Salvadorian director Tatiana Huezo is one such filmmaker, and her newest documentary El Eco, couched between two fiction works (she is currently working on a new fiction feature), showcases this kind of inter-genre filmmaking practice in all its creative flourish.
El Eco is the name of a rural village approximately four hours from the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City. Those four hours represent a chasm of difference for those who live in the gorgeous but challenging mountain region of the state of Puebla, the residents of which Huezo spent four years filming. Similarly to Noche de Fuego, her previous fiction film, El Eco focuses on the lived experience of women and girls, in this case members of one family who live in the small titular village. The father comes briefly in and out of the picture, as he is off working construction far from the family’s home. There are richly captured and perfectly paced scenes of the family members tending to livestock, the eldest daughter learning from the mother on the ways in which to care for the elder matriarch (who we learn was the first person to arrive in the village), children playing in dewy mountain air and attending the town’s one-room school where they are taught to teach each other. As with Huezo’s previous documentary Tempest, El Eco’s rich, saturated, wholly earthy colours and captivating protagonists combine with a layered score that is somehow foreboding and life-affirming as an immersive tale of village life far from city lights and accompanying “modern” comforts.
Working with her usual cinematographer Ernesto Pardo, Huezo paints this rural portrait with a mesmerizing pallet of fecund ochre, dark indigo and miry umber that has a powerful sensorial pull. The brooding blue skies bruised with storms past and future, along with shots of children ambling across mountain fields and trails, convey ambient echoes of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, but El Eco has a sharp coherency despite its somewhat non-narrative structure. It is a film with a striking creative arrangement that compellingly holds together varied scenes of familial tenderness and tension, husbandry work and crop labour as we are immersed in a family’s efforts to stay together in El Eco and survive in the face of scarce resources and a changing climate.
Huezo manages to strike a tonal chord that is both disquieting and jubilant. It’s a hypnotic combination that honours the rural lives of the family depicted, while also subtly suggesting it is a life of hardship, toil and precarity (including the impact of climate change on crops and growing cycles). Huezo’s considered lens does not glorify or gloss over the challenges of rural life in Mexico, but allows for resplendent moments from the imaginative, playful world of children to seep in and linger long past the credits. There are scenes of irrefutable vitality and imagination that the director embroiders into the fabric of El Eco, including the rebellious but also dutiful daughter riding her horse, of two of the children creating elongated shadows on dark grass as the sun disappears behind a distant mountain, and of a boy shepherding livestock through an ash grey forest who stops for a moment to lick the bark of a tree, then lovingly wraps his arms around the trunk.
It is this embrace that provides the most absorbing echo of Huezo’s documentary, one that signals thematic undercurrents in the film, such are the reverberations of intergenerational knowledge and care, of relations to the land and other living things, to times past and other places afar, and of all-too fleeting childhood and its joyful magic.