Tuesday, 22 April 2014

THE ENGINEER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2014 - Excavation inEl Salvador, Hot Docs Must-See Powerful Documentary executive producedby none other than Wikileaks' Julian Assange.

The Engineer (2014) ****
Dir. Juan Passarelli, Mathew Charles

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In a country with the highest murder rate in the world, most of it gang-related, how does the government prove they're winning the war on crime when they're not? Well, it's simple, really. The majority of gangland slayings, especially in said country, involve dumping the bodies in old wells and septic tanks all over the country, not to mention the fine assortment of unpopulated bush areas, perfect for shallow graves. If bodies aren't found, there can't possibly be as many murders, hence more positive statistics. How then does the country make absolutely sure the stats continue in this fashion? Easy. Make sure the entire country has only one - COUNT 'EM - ONE (!!!) forensic criminologist.

It's through the eyes of the central subject of The Engineer, Israel Ticas, that we learn the aforementioned tidbits and more. With his criminology background in addition to systems engineering, Israel has been charged with the important job of tracking down the bodies of all those who have gone missing. He's pretty savvy to the near-futility of the efforts, but he attacks his duties with passion and meticulous attention to detail - not with any special duty to his country, but to the mothers and grandmothers of all the sons and husbands and fathers of his country who are being murdered, then disappeared into the black holes of this godforsaken, ignored and almost-forgotten corner of the planet.

We are, of course, talking about El Salvador, the physically tiny, but densely populated Central American country that suffered during a bloody civil war that raged through the 80s and early 90s, resulting in a massive genocide perpetrated against its left wing by (who else?) the American-financed military dictatorship. In its wake was a country even more divided and poverty-stricken. Thanks again, America! We couldn't keep making people suffer without you.

Gratefully, it is the bravery and fortitude of filmmakers like directors Passarelli and Charles, in addition to their entire producing team and crew, that we have this superbly wrought motion picture to focus upon one horrific aspect of America's legacy in this country. The suffering experienced in El Salvador these days is palpable. The country is ruled, on one hand, by a corrupt, inept, nest-feathering government and on the other, powerful criminal gangs - engaged in major turf battles to control the underground economy of crime. As the murder rate laughably goes down, the missing person rates climb astronomically.

Israel Ticas is up to the challenge, though. He attacks every exhumation with the careful attention to detail an archaeologist might bring to their work. Israel personifies all the bodies he finds and brings to the surface. His meticulous methods are not only to merely extract corpses, but do so in such a way that he can get a sense of how the body was disposed of, in what shape it was in when it was dumped, how long it took to die, how it died - all this and more provides the details needed to both identify the corpse and amass the information needed just in case someone might want to launch a criminal investigation.

Especially poignant to me is how the film captures Israel's careful, considered work in such a manner that one is overcome with the strange feeling of wanting to get a sense of the body as a living spirit just before death. One thinks about the loving families left behind and wonders what thoughts might have cascaded at the speed of light through the victim's mind just before death and/or disposal? We not only feel this, but sense this is something Israel is grasping for himself.

If Israel were merely a proud man rather than the humanitarian he is, one senses he'd pride himself, not so much on his astonishingly detailed, brilliant work, but his relationships with the survivors of the victims. Every grandmother and mother in every town and city he visits, knows they can talk to him directly about their missing sons, husbands and grandsons. They hope he will recover the missing bodies. He listens and makes note of what they have to say. He WANTS to find the bodies for THEM. The humanity he displays, the commitment he makes to all these victims seems almost superhuman.

And so it is. In a world of madness, poverty and violence, sometimes it's precisely what mankind needs - someone who will listen, care and do everything in his power to help - above and beyond the call of mere duty. In a place like El Salvador. where life is cheaper than the dirt a body will rot in, compassion at a level Israel Ticas displays - especially from someone in government and law enforcement - seems like natural grounds for canonization.

Screw the comic book heroes, Israel Ticas is the real thing.

So's the film.

The Engineer plays at Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. For ticket info visit the festival website HERE.