Israel Tiscas, the only criminologist working in El Salvador, is the film’s Engineer. The small Central American country has become the second most murderous in the world, much of the violence resulting from a brutal war between rival gangs 18th Street and NS-13. Dozens of people, many of them children and teenagers, are murdered each week. Tiscas has devoted himself to finding the bodies of the missing to give their families closure.
The documentary filmmakers Matthew Charles and Juan Passarelli were searching for a way into El Salvador’s problems, and they found one with Tiscas. He’s an engaging screen presence, riddled with eccentricities (his bedroom wall at home is covered with photos of his bloody finds) and self-aggrandising bluster, playing up to his minor-celebrity status. The cameras follow his day-to-day activity, excavating graves or abseiling down wells to recover the grim black bin bag at the bottom. Around this central thread, interviews with police informants and current gang members – who detail the killings they’ve carried out in a terrifyingly dispassionate tone – flesh out the wider picture of the country’s nightmarish situation.
The Engineer is a tough watch – it doesn’t shy away from footage of dismembered corpses and photos of grave sites. This is the reality of the situation, and the filmmakers want to ensure we pay attention. Images of murdered children inevitably act as an emotional gut-punch, but it never feels manipulative or shocking for its own sake.
There are evidently much larger issues at play here, and questions surrounding political corruption and the influence of the US are alluded to only briefly. The Engineer keeps its scope reined in (the original cut of the film was over three hours long) concentrating mainly on Tiscas’ personal experiences. What it’s really about is the personal tragedy of countless victims and the pain their relatives endure. The Engineer is emotionally gruelling, but important.
For further information about The Engineer visit here.
The Engineer was screened part of a series of events highlighting cutting edge political cinema at the Frontline Club, for further information visit here.
Watch the trailer for The Engineer here: