There is an innate creative understanding shared between Mexican filmmakers Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Ideas and meanings overlap both in our Zoom discussion and in their filmmaking process, to the extent, they say, that they “cannot even remember who started which ideas.” Theirs is a mutually open and invested working partnership, one that allows for collaboration across roles on each other’s work whether producing, editing, or writing.
Identifying Features, which had its initial premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is Valadez’s first feature as a writer and director, co-written by Rondero (whose own directorial debut, The Darkest Days of Us, premiered in 2017). An expansion on Valadez’s earlier short film, 400 Maletas (2014), Identifying Features depicts a mother’s search for her son who disappears, like many young people in Mexico have, during an attempt to cross the US border. (In December 2020, Al Día reported that nearly 79,000 people have gone missing in the country since 2006 amid drug wars and the proliferation of organized crime.)
With its warm, neutral palette, palpable perceptivity to landscape and environment, and bold foray into the mythical, Identifying Features is a film that feels tonally and thematically akin to another lauded recent debut, Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019). Both Diop and Valadez explore the plight of young men in the countries they know so well through the eyes of the women left behind to mourn them. Mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, lovers; pairs moving through life in tandem, searching for one another, and longing for each other’s safety.
Caitlin Quinlan (Rail): To start, why did you decide to further develop the short film 400 Maletas into this feature?
Fernanda Valadez: When we finished the short, I had this feeling that I didn’t quite tackle the issue that I wanted to express, in several ways. First, that the humanitarian crisis that we’ve been living through in Mexico is broader and more complicated than what you can tell in a short film. And also in terms of the characters and the cinematic language I really wanted to redo it and do it properly, in a way that I think the themes and the situations that inspired this film deserve.
Astrid Rondero: It’s a great short film, and we discussed it because I told her that I felt like we had already done that story. Because the core of the story, the story of this woman looking for her missing son, and these guys returning back, that core was basically the same. But she really was adamant about the idea of this short film not being able to tackle the broader picture of what’s happening in Mexico. And now I see it, and that’s how Fernanda’s vision was important. Because it was right, it was important to do it all again.
Rail: To write the script, were you speaking with real people in Mexico experiencing these situations? Did you work from any testimonies?
Valadez: The script is basically based in documentary investigation. I approached an organization that gives legal and general support to families of missing people. And the moment I did that, and I began talking to those activists, I felt like I didn’t want those people to feel used, because in the end, this was fiction. And I wouldn’t be able to take the specifics of their cases and try to give them visibility, because what we were trying to do was to give a general picture and design characters that could express a diversity of situations. So we decided, in the end, to speak to journalistic sources in Mexico. There are amazing journalists that really put their lives at risk in researching what’s happening. And—
Rondero: Sometimes they disappear.
Valadez: Sometimes they are killed. I mean, Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists, for a country that is not officially at war. So we took those testimonies, and when we were scouting for locations and talking to people about their experiences, that was the moment when we did talk with real people, particularly with migrants, with people working for the shelters, and with young people that have the dream and the aspiration to migrate to the United States.
Rail: And people from the community came into the film as non-professional actors?
Valadez: Yes, and that’s something that was kind of a moral decision that made us realize how delicate it is to work with non-actors. Because those young people, particularly the adolescents, the teenagers, that we work with, they have real life experiences about migrations. One of them is already in the United States after the film. As a minor, he managed to cross the border and he is now living there. And when we were interviewing him, he told us an incredible—I don’t even have words about his experience of trying to cross the border—
Rondero: That first time—
Valadez: That first time when he was 14, 15 years old, and they got lost, they almost got killed. He, at that very early age, had an experience of facing death and facing all these forces of adversity for young people in Mexico. So working with them made us realize that we have to offer them something. We didn’t want them to feel like we were exploiting them, so we really tried to offer them the film as an experience of something that was also available for them; as something that could be constructive and enriching in their lives.
Rail: The film has quite a strong focus on motherhood, was that the clear theme for you from the beginning?
Rondero: I believe that that was the seed that Fernanda had from the very beginning and I think that’s why these stories, for me, are really enduring, because she’s looking at this tragedy through the eyes of motherhood, of this pure feeling that a mother has for her son. And that’s something that I think accompanied the whole journey of this film. I think also that it’s really important to talk about this tragedy that we’re living in Mexico, that women are turning into private investigators, they’re turning into police officers, they’re turning into—
Rondero: —activists at the end, because they’re the ones who are really tracing the steps of their families that are disappearing. So the image of women in Mexico now is really, really powerful. And I think it’s absolutely about the fact that we don’t have a good system in Mexico, a working system.
Valadez: It’s an act of solidarity, that at the same time I’m trying to bring justice to their cases, and not only to their own. Now they have these organizations, where they’re really helping other people’s cases. And I think this feeling of loving someone so much then becomes empathy to other people.
Rail: You also had a predominantly female crew on this film. Is that becoming more common in Mexican cinema in your eyes?
Valadez: Fortunately, it’s becoming more common, and that’s also because public funds have made filmmakers from our generation realize that we can claim those funds, work a lot, and make the films ourselves. And we also have the previous experience of Astrid’s first film, as a company and as a creative team, a film that talks about gender disparity and violence. And with that film, I think we both realized that we also had to reflect and had to redesign ourselves in order to be fully capable of doing our films with freedom. And one of the answers was that we needed to work with more and more women.
Rondero: We’re really lucky that we have great filmmakers, women filmmakers in Mexico. So when you decide to work in an all-female team, you’re taking the best of the best.
Rail: Was that female presence helpful when thinking about the themes of the film as well?
Valadez: Absolutely. For example, with the cinematographer, Claudia Becerril, she was so sensitive to the theme that we never really had the discussion that you usually have with your Director of Photography who often wants photography to be more important than the scene. So it was very harmonious, I think, that everything fell into place. Because everyone, we all fell for the project, and there was no competition of egos. And I think that was possible, also, because we were working with the female filmmakers.
Rail: This film feels very grounded in the Mexican landscape; the colors of the sky, granular details of the earth, crops, other plants.
Valadez: Yes, I think I wanted to really make the environment become a character and become expressive. And something we discussed is that there is kind of an expectation, particularly in Europe, for Latin American films to be very naturalistic. We wanted to be very free and to use all the tools of the cinematic language that we thought were good for this project. So I think deep down what we wanted to do is design and shoot a film that was more expressive than naturalistic. So we thought about the light and the landscape and the earth and the sky in those terms. And we had to rewrite, of course, when we went to locations and things were a little different than we expected, even though we already knew those locations. But I think that was kind of the idea behind that, to not let the physicality of the landscape dictate what we were doing, but to incorporate that into the inner journey of the characters.
Rail: You make a conscious decision not to explicitly name the threat at hand through character dialogue or contextual visual clues, and one scene is left unsubtitled. What was the process behind that decision?
Rondero: That was something that we discussed a lot before going into principal photography. It’s natural, because we were worried that perhaps outside Mexico, people wouldn’t understand what was happening in the story. But we decided to stick with the perspective of the victim, of the mother. And that’s how they start the journey. They don’t know what’s happening around them. In fact, in real terms, for instance, we were shooting in an area, that was—we later on understood—a very dangerous area, because they were trafficking oil at that point. And we didn’t know that. That’s something that happens in Mexico, there are so many types of violence and criminal activity, that we really don’t know how it works. And when you are an everyday person, you basically are unaware of what’s happening. We wanted that feeling so the audience will feel the same, the same way this woman is, contending with the unknown. And I think that we try to privilege this feeling above anything else.
Valadez: And that worked like a cascade. When we made that decision, then we decided when we were editing not to translate from a Mexican Native language, Zapotec, into Spanish, and not to subtitle that into English. And that’s also why we decided not to subtitle all of the dialogue, because it’s more like the noise and the phenomenon that is happening around the character. But she’s not really aware of that because she’s paying attention to very specific things. We’ve encountered different audiences; some people get really frustrated because the film doesn’t tell them what’s really happening, and some others let themselves be pulled into emotions and into the characters.
Rail: Have you shown the film in Mexico yet?
Rondero: Yeah, it was great. We just screened it at the Morelia International Film Festival. And we had a very good reception. For us it was, like [sighs]. We felt very—
Rondero: Big relief, because we were worried that perhaps—this is a very difficult topic to talk about in Mexico because we feel like we’re exploiting it at some point. When you watch these stories and films, you’re always afraid that they will feel like an exploitation of these stories. But I think that Identifying Features really comes from a place of—
Rondero: Empathy, exactly, and through the eyes of victims. And I think that was the thing that really connects with the audience. You can get this feeling of a woman jumping into a completely unknown journey, where she will find very different kinds of people that sometimes will help her try to get to the next level. And I also think, in terms of something more hopeful, we also show these nets of support. Because these people helping this woman look for her missing son, they’re also in great danger. So I think that it was great to watch that in Mexico. They received the story with a lot of love.
Valadez: Yeah, I think that’s what surprised us the most and made us really happy. When we were shooting this film, we really didn’t have expectations. And we really didn’t know who was going to watch it, in Mexico or outside Mexico. And I think for us, it has been a lesson of talking from a place of freedom and empathy, it’s like throwing a bottle into the sea, that someone might take and find and make a human connection. And I think that’s what’s been so wonderful about this film, that it has been able to connect emotionally with people from different cultures.