Adapted from Jennifer Clement’s “Noche de Fuego,” “Prayers for the Stolen” marks Tatiana Huezo jump into feature fiction. The film follows the lives of three girls in a town secluded in the Mexican mountains near a poppy field and a mining area.

The girls grow protected and hidden from the constant violence that silently takes over the town. Although the movie is permeated with the dread the inhabitant live with, not knowing what can happen to their lives and especially those of the girls coming to adulthood, it is also brimmed with tenderness and human care.

As Huezo delivers a delicate portrait of a childhood friendship, ephemeral but profoundly intense and hopeful, contrasted by the sordid cruelty of the reality that surrounds them highlighting the paradoxical nature of the Latin American country where human sweetness can be followed by the most absurd brutality.

Produced by Nicolas Celis’ Pimienta Film and Jim Stark alongside The Match Factory, which handles world sales, Desvía Films, Borde Cadre Films and Cactus Films, it’s a firm step into fiction for what is already a shining documentary career. Filled with striking images taken at magic hour and an acute sound design that builds a deep nature world where the characters live.

Variety talked with Huezo as the film premieres at Un Certain Regard.

In your Vision du Réel Masterclass you talked extensively about the process of investigation in your films. What was you starting point when approaching this one? 

I could only approach this film through my own documentary process, which starts with the character but is intimately tied to the location. In this case I had a great starting point with the novel “Night of Fire” by Jennifer Clement, which occurs in the [mountainous area of] Guerrero. A deeply violent place that has been at war for several years and has a strong presence of mining grounds that have violently looted the nature there. At the same time it is one of the impressive poppy growing enclaves of Mexico, a multimillionaire business which translates into the absence of state forces and the appearance of organized crime. To me, as a documentarist, this was the starting point as I found fascinating how organized crime is in collusion with many of the mining companies and they arrive at the places, dispossess the towns, force them to give their lands.

The film feels immensely organic in its formal approach which gives a very clear feeling of reality to it. How did you felt that leap from documentary to fiction?

In documentary things already exist, the characters, the live behind them, the situations that they transit, their personal relationships and their tragedies. Here I was amazed because we had to generate everything, we shot in this extraordinarily beautiful mountain called Neblinas but there was nothing else. We built from scratch many sceneries like the poppy field, Ana’s house; we even created the rain. It was a titanic labor but this manipulation, which certainly exists in documentary and is empowered to the thousands in fiction was immensely satisfactory. You become even more aware of how details as the texture of the walls, the clothes, their color, affects the overall story. Finding the actresses was a far more laborious aspect because I didn’t want a child actor who came from the city and would immediately get blisters from walking through the mountain. We looked and looked through many villages for then to work with Fátima Toledo who is an incredible acting couch, a sort of shaman, who became a teacher for me and the kids.

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Prayers for the Stolen Credit: The Match Factory

The movie is filled with elements that one can only hear, or barely sense, like a tip of an iceberg. From an absent father, to the violence that engulfs the town, there are many things that occur off frame. Could you comment? 

I always try to get away from illustrating the graphic, everything that kills the possibility of you as a viewer to have a sensorial and emotional journey. It has always been the case in my previous films; they all deal with tremendous violence and have not one drop of blood, not a single graphic representation of violence. And something fundamental to me every time I start a film is from whose point of view are we perceiving the world? Here it was entirely through the girls’ eyes, the camera is at their height, we feel through them. In fact childhood is shoot in 1:66 while adolescence is a 1:77 aspect ratio. Because to me, childhood is a refuge, of love and tenderness, where the stark reality still hasn’t fully entered. I wanted to see the world through their faces, in tight frames, rather than the world itself.

In a way fiction’s structures are often more rigid those from documentary. Yet you find moments where life drips in, as the girls play a telepathic game or the teacher asks them to construct a version of their bodies. How did you develop said moments? 

It’s great to hear this because those are the scenes that come to me and that I need to put in the film, even if in the long process of the script you hear often that some things don’t work for the story, don’t drive the plot forward. I always try to put myself in the character’s shoes, and in a way each character inhabits one of my universes, as a mother, as kid, as someone who observes. The film is permeated by these things of my own life, of the life of my daughter.

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Prayers for the Stolen poster Credit: The Match Factory