SAN SEBASTIAN — A Mexican co-production between Astrid Rondero’s Corpulenta Producciones and Jack Zagha’s Avanti Pictures, “Non Distinguishing Features” took the main prize at San Sebastian’s Films in Progress section, its pix-in-post competition. The award: Post-production of the film and its distribution in Spain.
An alumna of Mexico’s prestigious Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC) film school, director Fernanda Valadez’s debut tackles a painful issue: the disappearances of migrants en route to the U.S. and the pilgrimage of those looking for their missing loved ones.
Guanajuato-born Veladez’s short “400 maletas,” was nominated for best short film by the Mexican Academy of Cinematic Arts. She also produced Astrid Rondero’s “The Darkest Days of Us” (2017).
In “Non Distinguishing Features,” Magdalena journeys to find her son who disappeared on the way to the Mexico-US border. In the course of that journey, where victims and persecutors trudge aimlessly across miles and miles of territory, she will find Miguel, a young deportee forced to make his way back home. The two roam the wilderness together; Magdalena in search of her son, Miguel in search of his mother.
What does winning the Films in Progress Prize with your first feature mean for you?
Just being selected is already a prize in itself, but winning brings a level of visibility we didn’t have before. We hope it makes getting finance easier and paves the way for proper exhibition.
Why did you choose the title “Non Distinguishing Features”?
I wanted to talk about the wave of violence and crimes in Mexico which affects everyone. In this situation, Mexicans are indistinguishable, only recognized by the people who love them which, in the case of the film, is a mother in search of her son.
In the film, there is a strange crossing of paths, of people going in opposite directions. Can the same be said about their emotions and disillusions?
Miguel has been deported, so he is going back to his country against his will. What he finds is an unfamiliar world. It was important to me the central character (Magdalena) undertakes a journey in search of her son. She finds Miguel, a son in search of his mother while returning home, where he finds that his house has been destroyed. Its two people who live similar experiences.
This 8th edition of the San Sebastian Europe-Latin America Co-production Forum has seen most of the prizes go to women. Practically all of the technical crew and cast of “Non Distinguishing Features” are women. Was that intentional?
I was a calculated decision. For me it was extremely rewarding to work with female cineastes in every sector of the profession. It was all about sharing a certain sensibility and spirit of work. Furthermore, for this film, working as we were on a shoestring budget, it was very important to have a team truly given over to the endeavor and sensitive to the issue. The dynamics were more in keeping with that of a bigger, more conventional shoot but with lots of empathy and creativity.
And I suppose, as well, with the feeling that you’re making a type of cinema that would have been much more difficult to make before?
It stems from the fact that many of the women who are now directing films are also producers. We are participating in the production of our own works, making decisions about budget about how things are done; choices about the cast and crew.
What can you tell us about the visual style to “Non Distinguishing Features”?
One of my objectives with this film was to convey with an absolute economy of language the humanitarian crisis we’re living in Mexico today. We used only a few shots per sequence, at the same time striving for growing tension giving it the trappings of a thriller. In this sense, it starts off with a naturalist style and gradually becomes more lyrical and expressive as the story progresses.
After a first short (“400 Bags”) and this feature debut, do you feel like you’re setting down a marker in terms of your own style?
I don’t think much about stylistic elements, because I think that all springs naturally from each story. What I do think I’ve managed to forge so far, as director and producer, is the possibility of telling, with true freedom and independence, stories that deeply engage me. I am founder and partner of two production companies: EnAguas Cine and Corpulenta.
Family relations and fraternity links are themes in my head, going round and round all the time, always envisioned through female characters. But right now, with my producer hat on, I’m preparing Astrid Rondero’s second film. Astrid is my creative accomplice as well as producer on “Sin señas particulares”. The film’s called “Sujo: Under the Name of a Horse.” It’s a powerful story about a child who’s lost his parents to the drug trafficking business. I’m also writing my second film, which is going to be called “Rambler,” about the earthquake in Mexico City in 2017. It’s inspired in Antonio Calera-Grobet’s novel and is a tribute to that beautiful and chaotic city I’ve lived in since the age of 16.