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XQUIPI (OMBLIGO), the Isthmian reality of Juan Pablo Villalobos at Critics' Week

Like every year since 2005, the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) is invited by the Cannes Film Festival to host a special out-of-competition screening at the Critics' Week. This event showcases short films that were part of the Official Selection in the previous edition.

This year, director Juan Pablo Villalobos Díaz was chosen for his short film Xquipi (Ombligo) (2022). The film tells the story of Coral and her pregnant sister, Luz, who reside in an old house without running water. During the construction of a cistern in their yard, workers stumble upon a pre-Hispanic burial, leading to the involvement of an archaeologist. Meanwhile, at night, the men make another surprising discovery as Luz goes into labor.

FICM had the chance to speak with the director, who shared his inspiration for creating this work, which helped him reconnect with his past.

XQUIPI (OMBLIGO) (2023, Dir. Juan Pablo Villalobos)

FICM: What was your intention in making this short film?

Juan Pablo Villalobos:I wanted to write a screenplay about a part of the Tehuantepec region, where I currently live, and where I'm originally from. After spending several years in Mexico City, I returned to my roots to reconnect with my place of origin. Being away for about 14 years reignited my interest and allowed me to see my hometown with fresh eyes. This is why I chose the navel as a focal point to craft stories around, even visually. Symbolically, the navel represents a central point with things revolving around it. Initially, I planned to write a script and then move on to production.

All of this occurred due to an open call at that time, with some support from the southern region of the country. It's important to note that all the production originated from southern Mexico. The festival behind the call is a small one in Merida, Yucatan, called Libre Cinema. They offered modest financial support to develop the script, which marked the beginning of it all.

FICM: Why tell a story of the Isthmus based on such a unique element of that region as burying the navel?

JPV: Over the years, my perspective on my region has evolved. I didn't want to simply depict traditional rituals from an anthropological, ethnographic, or folkloric standpoint. Instead, I aimed for the film to symbolize, through the cinematographic language, the concept of a navel, where many elements revolve around an axis. Initially, there was a physical hole, the excavation of a cistern by the builders. Later, I discovered a related narrative that added depth, the navel of the child about to be born in that house. I combined these two themes —the navel as a human treasure and the gold treasure in the courtyard.

XQUIPI (OMBLIGO) (2023, Dir. Juan Pablo Villalobos)

I structured the story in a narrative way, incorporating the concept of gold, a common element in popular fantasy. In Tehuantepec, my hometown, adults often share fantastic stories. Some have discovered gold hidden in their old colonial houses, where fortunes were sometimes buried. There are legends about individuals who found buried gold and suddenly became wealthy. This captivating narrative idea intrigued me, leading me to blend it with a deeper concept — the cultural practice of burying the umbilical cord at the birthplace. I found a fascinating parallel between burying the umbilical cord and symbolizing a seed for future growth.

Also, the buried gold and the tradition of the navel, along with everything related to it, intrigued me. This tradition is becoming increasingly rare, but it can still be found in certain places with large houses and yards covered in soil. Even though people are now born in hospitals rather than houses, some of these customs were part of my generation, passed down from my parents.

FICM: On that same note, is there a deliberate connection between loss and birth in the story? Because these two characters experience loss while burying the navel of a new life coming into the world.

JPV: Indeed, there is a social aspect to consider. The individuals, my characters, residing in this large house are not the owners but rather occupants. Following an earthquake, there was a renewed interest in preserving the houses, leading to the arrival of many archaeologists in Tehuantepec to supervise the restoration of both houses and churches.

This led to national interest objects being taken to museums. I found it intriguing that people here live in such poverty, more than in other parts of the country, yet beneath the houses and the poverty lies wealth. I needed to emphasize that. While the families could easily live off the gold and coins buried there, the main focus was to transfer them to a museum.

FICM: Why did you submit your short film to compete at the Morelia International Film Festival?

JPV: FICM is a national reference, and it is also very well known internationally —as a place where Mexican filmmakers of recent generations are obliged to go. So, I made this short film without any intention of it being in festivals, but it so happened that I responded to a call from the Locarno Filmmakers Academy, and they accepted me. They saw the short film in work in progress and thought this short film was very cool! It won't be in the short film competition, but it will be exhibited. So in Morelia, they saw it and selected it. Also, this year in Locarno there was a retrospective of Mexican cinema, many people from Mexican cinema programmers went to Locarno and that's when this circumstance came about so that it would be in FICM, besides the fact that I had also registered it.

XQUIPI (OMBLIGO) (2023, Dir. Juan Pablo Villalobos)

FICM: And what has winning at FICM given you?

JPV: Well, now I see the possibility of being able to develop my feature film, my opera prima. Because there has been some interest from some production companies to know what I want to do, for my first feature film. Even though I already have a production company, there have been other approaches and I think that's what has helped me so far. After winning the FICM award, I see a little more clearly the possibility of making a feature film. And also the invitation to other festivals, like now being in the Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival.

By the way, we will also participate in the UNAM International Film Festival (FICUNAM) in the Ahora México section. This is exciting as it is the Mexican competition. Xquipi (Ombligo) is the only short film competing alongside feature films, which I find very interesting.

FICM: What do you expect from this screening at the Cannes Film Festival's Critics' Week? Are you planning to attend?

JPV: Yes, I am attending.  I'll make an effort to get to know the most important festival in the world. I believe it is crucial to showcase a lesser-known aspect of Mexico's reality, specifically the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and to highlight the productions of Mexican cinema in general. I think it is an enormous opportunity for the reality of the Isthmus, Oaxaca, and Mexico to be present since 80% of the team behind Xquipi (Ombligo) are individuals from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and with fiction, which is less common compared to the usual focus on documentaries.

I would like to thank FICM, it was the first platform, stepping stone, and showcase that made Xquipi (Ombligo) known. I look forward to the short film gaining even more visibility. Although it couldn't be part of the screenings at Cine para todxs during FICM, as it was set to participate in FICUNAM in June, I am hopeful that Xquipi will enjoy greater exposure in the future.