In her impressive narrative feature debut, Mexican actor-filmmaker Ángeles Cruz examines the impact of migration and the difficulties women face in a small village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Set in the fictional village of San Mateo (in reality Cruz’s hometown of Villa Guadalupe Victoria), “Nudo Mixteco” (or “Mixtecan Knot”) weaves together the stories of three indigenous women dealing with love, sex, the struggle for empowerment and the legacy of child abuse in a community largely dominated by chauvinistic traditions.

Cruz, who also wrote and produced the film via Madrecine, the company she runs with partners Lucía Carreras and Lola Ovando, spoke to Variety about the pic, which features a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors. “Nudo Mixteco” screens in the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Harbour section.

The project initially began as three female monologues that reflected the experiences of people who return to their communities after having long ago left their friends and family, Cruz says. As she developed the script, however, the stories became more about the universal challenges that women face, particularly about the very limited space that women have to make decisions over their own lives and their own bodies.

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“Nudo Mixteco” Courtesy of IFFR

In the first story, a young woman returns to her village for a funeral only to find herself ostracized by her family. “She loves another woman, but cannot have that kind of relationship because of all the things that she is confronted with in the community, but also because of her own prejudice,” Cruz explains.

The second chapter follows an estranged couple and highlights “what is happening in our communities. People go to work elsewhere and leave their families for long periods of time, lose communication with them, but then return as if nothing has happened. For me it’s brutal because it’s the reality that we, the women, are living in our communities.

“And the third story: there is this profound pain that I believe still exists in all societies, which is the sexual abuse of children and this repetition, this vicious circle.”

Migration and its impact on family and community is a main theme that runs through the film, connecting the three chapters.

“The people of our communities leave out of necessity, not because they are going on vacation,” Cruz stresses. “It’s because of poverty, to search for employment that is better remunerated, to be able to study and get a more professional education.”

With schools in rural communities reaching only secondary level, many migrate at a young age, she adds. “Our migration is obligatory, it’s not out of pleasure.”

Returning home after being away for a long time often makes things more difficult, she points out. “How do we see ourselves? How do we see our community? Do we feel included or excluded once we have left? I think we remain in limbo. The people that migrate out of necessity, we are in limbo. We don’t know where we belong. We think we belong to a town, but then we return to a town that we no longer recognize because we’ve been away.

“This sensation of living in limbo is perceived very strongly in ‘Nudo Mixteco’ in the sense that even though you wish to return to your hometown, you also don’t belong there.”

While her film is very much rooted in Oaxaca’s Mixtec community, the stories present timeless portraits of the human condition.

“I think all human beings in this universe have had that frustration of not knowing who we are, of not having the space to decide, including decisions over our bodies, especially women, and more so women in these communities. That makes these themes universal in the sense that all women have experienced that moment where we have had to decide over our bodies.”

She points out that in many countries, including Mexico, the question of abortion is still being debated. “Other people are making decision over what I call our body territory,” she says. “We are just beginning to decide over our bodies.”

“This is something that many women around the world have experienced and that’s where the story connects with other people … this feeling of desolation, of not belonging, or not being able to decide over ourselves. I think that is what makes it universal.”

Cruz will again explore universal themes in her next feature, “Valentina o la Serenidad,” a story about a young girl dealing with the death of her father.

“It’s about the pain of a little girl,” Cruz explains. “I lost my father when I was 10 years old and it was very difficult for me to overcome that loss. I never wrote about it over the years but I have finally managed to do so now. It’s a very personal story about childhood grief.”

“My protagonists this time will be a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy.”

Miami-based FiGa Films is selling “Nudo Mixteco” internationally.