“We know you haven’t done anything, but someone has to pay,” Miriam Carbajal recalls hearing from a court-appointed attorney before being put in jail. What started as a normal day at work turns into a five-month nightmare for Carbajal, one of the central characters in Tempest, an emotionally charged Mexican documentary by Salvadoran-born cinematographer Tatiana Huezo. Carbajal is told she is a pagador — someone who pays for the offenses of others so the government can show results in its struggle against organized crime. Charged with human traffick-ing, she is forced away from her son and her job at the Cancun airport to a gang-run prison in Matamoros. There she endures beatings and demands for payments to ensure her protection, until she is abruptly acquitted and released without explanation.
The documentary then shifts focus to a second Mexican woman: Adela Alvarado, whose daughter Mónica was kidnapped 10 years earlier by unknown assailants. Alvarado, who works as a clown in her family-run circus, breaks into sobs as she remembers her missing daughter. What both women have in common is the shared experience of their government’s failure to help Mexico’s countless crime victims — a theme close to filmmaker Huezo’s heart.
She developed the idea for the film after reuniting with Carbajal, a friend for 20 years who, unlike Alvarado, is never seen on camera. According to Huezo, that’s because “her voice is not related directly to a single face but to many faces along the way, creating the sense that what happened to Miriam could happen to anybody living in Mexico today.”
Released in February 2016 at the Berlin International Film Festival, Tempest won this year’s Tim Hetherington Award — named for the acclaimed British photojournalist — at the Sheffield (U.K.) International Doc/Fest.
Bintrim is an editor for Americas Quarterly