Based on the real-life experiences of a mother in Mexico, Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai dives deep into the brutal and violent conditions surrounding life in Northern Mexico. Co-written by Habacuc Antonio De Rosario the film follows Cielo (Arcelia Ramírez) who, after the kidnapping of her daughter and lack of help from the authorities, ends up in a relentless search through a society crippled by systemic violence. Her journey reveals open wounds to which the population has become all too accustomed, drawing a keen picture of the idiosyncrasies that spring from said violence.

Produced by Hans Everaert’s Menuetto alongside One For the Road and some stellar names: Les Films du Fleuve  (the Dardenne brothers), Mobra Films (Christian Mungiu) and Teorema Films (Michel Franco), the feature marks Mihai’s jump to fiction after having won at Karlovy Vary with her documentary “Waiting for August.” An auteur and female twist on “Taken” set against the hardest conditions Mexico has to offer, the film meditates on the consequences of violence with a patient and empathetic eye.

Variety spoke with Mihai on the occasion of her film’s Cannes’ Un Certain Regard premiere.

From the first shot you quickly establish the formal rules with which you play during the entire film. The sequence shot becomes a predominant tool which stretches time with often suspenseful effect. Could you comment on this? 

I love sequence shots, in other films but also as part of my toolkit which I think comes from my work in documentaries. To me it is vital to be close to a character and the sequence shots allow you to hold in, as much as possible, to capture the emotion, the essence. When you’ve thoroughly worked the scene, when you understand what it means, and all the dialogue works it is a fantastic audiovisual tool. It was, of course, a challenge for me and the DOP to block and stage so that there was no need to cut. And then of course you arrive to editing and you cut.

Shot with a shallow depth of field the film has moments where the focus is lost and what might normally be avoided or deemed a mistake, you treat as a beautiful accident and construct through it. What is your view on those miraculous accidents? 

You’re right. Even the first scene when you see the girl and for a moment we lose focus, for me was a very magical moment, filled with meaning that became almost a metaphor. I adore these imperfections that embellish a film because they make it more real, more tangible. You gain a feeling of reality; it enlarges the suspension of disbelief. When these mistakes happen, it gives the feeling that you are with the character, that you are there and nothing was planned. It’s that game between fiction and reality, I always try to balance both when shooting. As Godard said and did: “If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.”

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La Civil Credit: Agustin Paredes

Undeniably, violence is a permanent notion of Latin American reality, and it always challenges filmmakers with how to portray and narrate it. Showing the violence works wonders at international festivals, and Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina dubbed it ‘misery porn.’ How was your experience shooting this violence?

Strangely enough, even though we are an ocean apart, my culture feels very similar to Mexico’s. I hadn’t heard of this term, but I understood it immediately. I saw it as a great challenge to avoid this at all costs as a person and as a filmmaker because it is easy to fall into that trap. This affected all aspects, the direction, the script, the actors. It was clear to all of us we had to be nuanced because the message comes through much more when it is subtle than when it is forced and imposed. To portray the wide spectrum of reality, there is humanity in the bad and evil in the good, it is essential for me to have, above all else, human characters, not cartoons, not simple victims and victimizers. I believe that’s the only way to get the universal themes across.

Any hero is only as good as it’s villain and your film has an incredibly mercurial one who exemplifies so many layers of a violent idiosyncrasy. How was the process of construction of El Puma?

He carries one of the messages of the film: when violence touches you, it stains you. You cannot escape from it. Violence makes you a victim but at the same time it forces you to join its vicious cycle, it is a paradoxical thing. For the character of Puma, we were looking for a villain who can impact you because in the midst of his crudeness he is also a father, he is also someone’s son and on his side there is suffering. For this I give all the credit to my co-screenwriter ____ and his ability to grayscale all the characters. It is not my intention to justify his actions nor to free him from the guilt of those actions, but I do understand that there is humanity on both sides. I do not get into politics because it is not my role. I tell stories and I hope that with them certain topics can be put in the spotlight, open debates and continue to discuss themes that are ever more present in our society.