11 · 3 · 20

Beyond victims and victimizers: Interview with Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero

By: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel

Fernanda Valadez‘ film Identifying Features (2020) was part of the World Cinematic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival this year, winning the Audience Aware and the Special Jury Prize for Best Screenplay, as well as a distribution package for the United States.

The Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) had the opportunity to talk to the two women behind the film – Fernanda Valadez and her co-writer Astrid Rondero – which tells the story of a woman trying to find out what has happened to her son, who disappeared trying to cross the border to the United States. Her journey brings her to Miguel, a man who has been recently deported from the US. The two travel together; Magdalena looking for her lost son and Miguel hoping to see his mother again.

Valadez and Rondero spoke to us about their motivation for making Identifying Features, as well as the challenges they faced and the importance of continuing to talk about the political and social reality in current-day Mexico.

Fernanda Valadez y Astrid Rondero

Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero at Sundance 2020

FICM: Where did the idea for the film come from? Why did you want to tell a story about violence and disappearance?

Fernanda Valadez: We have been working on this project for a number of years. I think around 2011 or 2012 we were deeply in shock when we realized that Mexico was actually a very different country than we thought; that in reality there was this huge undercurrent of violence that was just starting to come to light. I felt that it was urgent to tell a story that related to this, to try to understand what it is that could lead a person to commit acts of violence; to try and get close to the young people who have been affected by the chaos of violence in Mexico.

Astrid Rondero: We saw very specific cases that made it clear that crossing the border isn´t about leaving exactly, but about leaving a place that you really don’t want to leave. It’s about necessity. We wanted to talk about the adversity that these people face when they leave. This was what was most moving about the cases that had to do with kidnappings, or people being murdered on their journeys.

FV: The two massacres at San Fernando (Tamaulipas, 2010) were always on our minds, as well as many other articles published about migrant disappearances in the state of Guanajuato. These people started a journey and simply never got to the border. Sometimes the bus arrived; sometimes just the suitcases; sometimes nothing at all.

So our idea was to start to fictionize these stories. Something we always had clear was that we wanted to have a mother character who was looking for her lost child. This was always our way in, also because we have a lot of empathy for a mother who won´t stop looking until she finds out what happened to her son.

FICM: In the process of writing the film, were there moments when you weren’t sure whether to carry on?

AR: At the same time that we were developing the script, we were also working on a short film, which was basically the first step that we took and, yeah, we did think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to keep going because there was this moment when everyone was saying “enough stories about violence and migration.” I think we had the feeling at that moment that maybe it would be better to stop working on the story. But then Ayotzinapa happened and we suddenly realized that this wasn’t just a phase – I think when you’re making a film, the most genuine parts come from a sort of urgency to make people aware; to try and make some kind of change.

FV: There were two events that made us decide not to stop: the massacre at Tlatlaya and the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. At that time we also had a Young Creators grant but even with that it wasn’t easy to get the film financed – we were still having doubts about whether it would happen.

AR: When you work on stories, of course people always want them to be funny and bright, with lots of different angles, not just about with violence. But this is what living in our generation is about – this is what we see on the news; these are the stories of the people around us.

For example, the idea that the protagonist be a mother came from the fact that mothers are the most active in campaigning the state; they are the ones looking for their disappeared. I think this is what made us realize that we weren’t writing a fun story, but rather one that we felt was too important to abandon. This story can help us to understand something about the human tragedy that Mexico is currently going through: it’s not enough to think in terms of victims and victimizers.

Sin señas particulares (2020, dir. Fernanda Valadez)

Identifying Features (2020, dir. Fernanda Valadez)

FICM: Tell us about the decision not to show explicit violence in the film.

FV: This was something we decided on from the script stage and it has to do with wanting to create empathy for all of the characters. We were looking to create human characters; people who the audience could relate to and think that maybe, given the right combination of circumstance, they could act in that way. One of our objectives was to not create a barrier to engaging with the characters. So, even if the character is violent, he or she is also human – that’s important to keep in mind. For me this was something fundamental to the film.

AR: All the news reports are the same and they’re always about “the results of” – it makes it seem like there are only two elements: the person being eliminated and the person eliminating. We didn’t want to do the same thing. That’s why I think that not showing the violence in such a confronting way allows us to observe better. It’s a phenomenon that is fundamental to analyse, because it’s part of what involves us in this crisis.

FICM: How long did it take you to make the film?

FV: It was a long process. I had the Young Creators grant in 2013. Since we are our own producers, it took us a long time to mature, and in this period we also worked on another project: Los días más oscuros de nosotras (2017) – this was our first film nominated for an Ariel.

This film (Identifying Features) was more difficult to get financed and I think that if we hadn’t had this other project before, we wouldnt have been able to finish it.

We applied to FOPROCINE in 2016, which was when they cut the funding in half. That took us by surprise because we wrote the script thinking that it would cost ten million pesos to make, and the fund was for five, without any previous warning, so we had to adapt to what we were given.

We tried to get more money but unfortunately it wasn’t possible. The truth is that during the previous sexennium (2012-2018) it was harder to get EFICINE for films that were more critical of society, so we decided to shoot with the budget that we were given. This was complicated, but at the same time freeing, because we had to work outside of a traditional production structure, and this is what finally shaped the film. We did get some post-production funding after the film was finished.

FICM: How did you get to Sundance?

AR: The film had the good fortune of being in the Cine en Construcción section at the San Sebastián Film Festival, which was crucial because we didn’t have EFICINE at that point. So we had associates, but no post-production budget.

It was there, in San Sebastián, that we won a post-production prize. Being there also meant that the film was seen by programmers, including one of the programmers from Sundance, who fell in love with the film. So that’s how we could get there. This is really important actually, because if you’re not in the right place at the right time, your film might be overlooked.

FICM: Where do you think Mexican cinema is headed?

FV: I think that you can talk about what’s in your bones; it’s not a choice. All of a sudden a story chooses you, you write and develop it, and I think that’s a good thing that’s happening in Mexico – we have direct access to funding, we don’t need intermediaries. This is what’s helping Mexican cinema be so diverse and so genuine.

This film is about violence and love, but the next one will be different because I dont have anyone telling me what to do.

AR: The exciting part is that in Mexico there are all kinds of cinema, from the kind that helps you get through an afternoon and forget your problems, to the kind that travels around the world and is a testament to our times. I think that as filmmakers we have the obligation, the right and the privilege to talk about what’s happening in our times. As a generation, we can’t betray the fact that the country is in flux, we are living in a very difficult reality.

Basically I think that the current state of Mexican cinema is that there is a bit of everything – there’s cinema that changes you, that makes you reflect, that transcends, that makes you confront who we are and what moment we’re in. Even cinema that talks about other moments in history can make us confront our own reality. This is what makes our national cinema so powerful.