In her award-winning feature film debut “Identifying Features,” filmmaker Fernanda Valadez puts us in the shoes of a Mexican mother desperately searching for her son, who disappeared on his way to the border. It’s a story rooted in the bleak and violent reality of Mexico and an homage to the relatives of the victims of enforced disappearances in the country.
Along with co-writer Astrid Rondero, Valadez aimed to convey the humanitarian crisis happening in Mexico. “It’s not exclusive to a social class, nor to just migrants. It’s something that is happening across the entire social body of the country,” Valadez told us.
The crisis, as well as the increasing volume of disappearances and violent occurrences in Mexico shaped the script of “Identifying Features.”
“The heart was always the story of a mother searching for her disappeared son,” said Valadez. “The rest of the elements, the secondary characters that helped us give amplitud and depth of what is transpiring in Mexico, were inspired by real events that happened during the writing process.”
In the film, cruelty and violence are portrayed with the aid of the figure of the devil. However, this wasn’t initially in the script.
“During the development of the script, we reached a point where the scenes of violence were not working. The more explicit it was and the more detail I tried to include, the less it worked. The violent details were distancing us from the emotional perspective of the character,” explained Valadez. “It was Astrid who had the idea of approaching it from a symbolic and metaphorical angle, to try to find an iconic image that could express brutality and misunderstanding, the feeling of having no words to convey what goes on during these moments of extreme violence. This is why we decided to use the shape of the devil.”
One of the many brilliant decisions of the film is to not explain the context of the story to the viewers. Rather than understand it, Valadez and Rondero wanted the viewer to experience the path of a person who is a victim of violence.
“We wanted to keep the perspective of a mother who sets out on a journey without understanding the phenomena that she is throwing herself into,” said Valadez. “And that means, like most Mexican citizens, not quite being able to understand how intertwined all these incidents of violence are. Just like her, we Mexicans have gradually understood these incidents. We started with shock and surprise, and it has taken us more than a decade to understand how all these phenomena intersect.”
The precursor of “Identifying Features” was “400 Bags,” a 2014 Student Academy Award nominee short film with the same theme: the journey of a mother to the border in hopes of finding her missing son. But since then, many things have happened in Mexico.
“When ‘400 Maletas’ was released in 2014, there was this feeling that the violent situation was behind us, which was probably due to the approval of laws that led the media to publishing less news about disappearances, drug trafficking and violence in general,” Valadez explained. “For some months we were all asleep, but that changed after the events in Tlatlaya and, mainly, Ayotzinapa. That sucked us all Mexicans back into the harsh reality, and we started noticing again all the violence in México.”
In the film, this reality is seen through the eyes of Magdalena, a 48-year-old mother portrayed by an outstanding Mercedes Hernández, who had previously worked with Valadez in “400 Bags.”
“The work we did in the short film prepared the land for what we did in the feature film,” said the director about her lead. “She did research on the experiences of the mothers and relatives of the missing people. She lost weight to play the character too. Her ability to improvise at any moment was very useful for me, because I was working mostly with non-professional actors in the other roles”.
To work with the non-professional actors, Fernanda Valadez got a helping hand from Lizeth Rondero, an acting coach, actress, theater director and her co-writer’s sister. Together they organized a workshop with the teenagers to awaken their imaginative part and prepare them for the film.
“Acting is almost a human right. It comes from something we all do as children, which is to personify situations and characters that are not us. As children we all play at being others. Trying to make a non-professional actor get in touch with that emotional imagination is what allows them to represent a character. That was the basis on which we worked,” said Valadez.
Another big challenge for Valadez was the constraints of the budget. The film received half of the budget they had planned for, so the team had to redesign the entire production and budget scheme.
“We had to carefully think about what we were going to put in front of the camera, of what was going to be out of frame and of how to take advantage of the real spaces. We shot scenes in the migrant shelter and the border crossing almost like if they were for a documentary. We had this mix of semi-documentary and fiction filmmaking,” explained Valadez.
In fact, the border crossing scene was quite the adventure. The team tried to get permits, but rejection led them to finding a new way of shooting. Along with director of photography Claudia Becerril and actor David Illescas, Fernanda filmed the scene with a small camera while going through the intersection.
“At the crossroads was Astrid in a car, ready to get us out of trouble with the aid of some papers in case they stopped us,” told us Valadez. “We were able to shoot the entire scene until the camera had to go through the X-Ray reader. It was funny because Claudia is very small, skinny and sweet, so they didn’t even think she was recording. They thought she was just carrying the camera.”
The whole experience and the international success of the film has served as a reminder of the recent financial problems in Mexican cinema. Last year, the government shut down Foprocine, a fund created in the ‘90s to promote the film industry in Mexico, the same fund that supported the production of “Identifying Features.”
“The wonderful thing about this fund was that the grants were decided by juries made up of rotating filmmakers from the community that had the intention of supporting socially relevant and financially viable films, as well as first features and films directed by women and underrepresented communities,” explained Fernanda Valadez about the now extinct Foprocine. “This fund helped now-successful filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Amat Escalante. Unfortunately, last year this fund was dissolved, leaving a very important void in Mexican cinema.”
With the government’s lackluster support to the film industry and the shutdown of theaters due to COVID-19, the landscape of Mexican cinema looks uncertain. “What we have to do as a community is to try to push public policies that defend culture. I truly believe that supporting culture and filmmaking is the democratization of the social conversation.”
“The wonderful thing about cinema is that it allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, which is very important, especially in these polarized times: To be able to understand the perspective of the other is key,” said Valadez. “It is our duty to try to communicate this to the general public, as well as the importance of financing culture and education.”
“Identifying Features” is now available on virtual cinemas via its distributor, Kino Lorber. The film has won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, San Sebastián Film Festival, Morelia Film Festival, Zurich Film Festival and most recently, it received the Best International Feature Award at the 30th Gotham Awards.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”