Blending recorded interviews with re-enactment and location shooting with stark, minimalist interiors, Laura Plancarte’s look at life in the shadow of Mexico’s drug cartels plays out like a quasi-documentary. Stuffed with stripped-back dialogue spoken in plain terms, Tierra Caliente paints a grim portrait of the danger inherent in living in one of Mexico’s poorest regions, where treatment tantamount to slavery exists readily.

Southern Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region is not blessed with particularly sophisticated infrastructure or a surfeit of legitimately acquired cash. What it does have plenty of is poppies, and more than its fair share of violent criminal gangs willing and able to exploit the indigenous communities who still call the fairly desolate region home. As ably underlined in this blunt drama, the threat of violence hangs daily over its people in what one might reasonably be described as a war zone.

Plancarte plays us recorded interviews with members of a family who have felt first-hand the murderous effects of the regions gangs, before actors step in to take up the story, repeating the interviews verbatim. Mixing Spanish and English, Plancarte focuses the low key narrative on a single family, examining how the simple acts of everyday life become complicated and potentially disastrous. For long periods, the actors recount their stories from the sparse surroundings of soundstages, with only modest set design and accompanying sound effects, ensuring the audience’s focus remains on the actors and their stories. When one remembers that these stories are taken from real-life accounts, the feeling of gravity is potent.

The soundstage re-enactments of these recorded interviews bleed into the real-world, dropping the actors into the spaces that the real-life victims of these crimes would inhabit. An early scene sees a fleet of taxi drivers, inhabitants of the town, banding together and searching for lost colleague, connected to the family and another statistic of life at the edge in this inhospitable place.

Tierra Caliente means Hot Land in Spanish. Laura Plancarte’s frank and bruising docu-drama more than lives up to its fiery, hazardous name.

Director: Laura Plancarte
Cast: Dimitri Andreas, Claudia Coulter, Christianne Oliveira
Runtime: 80 minutes
Country: UK/Mexico

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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