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‘Prayers for The Stolen’ Director Tatiana Huezo on the Financial Squeeze of Awards Campaigns

Prayers for the Stolen International Features
Courtesy of Netflix

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard. 

Here, it’s the turn of Tatiana Huezo, director of Mexico’s shortlisted entry “Prayers for the Stolen” (“Noche de fuego”), “a poetic, profound portrait of growing up a girl in cartel-land,” Variety said in its review.    

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar? 

Feeling that my film can touch another person is the greatest value I can aspire to. I think cinema can touch the soul, make us look at each other, bring us closer together. It means a lot that the film has connected with Academy members. Being on the shortlist suggests how strong and vibrant Mexican cinema is. 

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

Positioning the film in the U.S. and other parts of the world for a campaign in a year when cinema are operating at reduced capacity, with online festivals and events which limit a broader, more direct exchange with audiences and Academy members. Also, economic resources.

Although you are shortlisted in international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism? 

It’s still difficult for non-English language films to access in the best of ways mechanisms that raise their visibility. But something important changed with “Roma” and what “Parasite” achieved a year later. Little by little the language barrier is breaking. With the platforms, it’s possible to reach a broader audience. But it’s difficult to stand out in such as competitive context without a strong distributor.  

Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?

Financial muscle is key to taping the promotion mechanisms which put our films on the map. The fact that non-English language cinema is impacting so much will help us to compete in better circumstances – to finance our films and sell them. There’s a lot of talent that will continue to shine as it has in the last few years if it can count on financial resources and access to the public. 

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

I think that commercial exhibition standards have always conditioned the length of film, and with the pandemic and platform releases, this is changing. In my view, the length of a film should be freer, determined by the time that a story really needs to be told.  

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

The broader the diversity and inclusion of Academy members from other filmmaking traditions in the world, the greater diversity there will be among the competing projects. I think that this is something that has already begun to happen, but the opportunities must be further expanded.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

Our cinematography is very much alive, full of significant stories that take greater risks and explore exciting new perspectives. I feel proud to be part of the cinema that is being made in Mexico and I am thrilled that the Mexican Academy has chosen my film to represent our country.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign?

Mexico does not have the resources to subsidize such an expensive campaign. And if you don’t have a strong distributor behind you, there is no chance of pushing the film further in its promotion in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. In the case of our film, Netflix has been key to giving it visibility. Even so, it is still very difficult to reach the campaigning level that bigger productions have.

Members have to opt in to vote for nominees for international features. On the Academy Streaming Room, they separate those films, and there is no charge for placing them on the platform. However, for $12,500, a film will be placed on the best picture section, adding an increased chance of viewing, which benefits financially lucrative movie studios. Not every filmmaker or country has the means to pay that fee. In addition, the Academy charges for email blasts to members with reminders to vote, and hosted Q&As. Do you find the process of getting nominated fair? If not, how would you like to see it change?

The nomination process would definitely have to give low budget films a chance by eliminating those quotas.

Both your film and Abner Benaim’s also shortlisted “Plaza Catedral” deal with the violence inflicted on the youth of Latin America. Do you think that the issue of violence is just so large and urgent that it’s difficult for filmmakers to ignore it?

I like to think of a cinema that inspires a respect for life and for the dignity of the human being…with all the light and darkness that we are made of. The times I have lived, where fear and violence have irreversibly marked the lives of thousands of families, has definitely had an impact on me and therefore on my work as a filmmaker.

What has been the most memorable experience to date of your Oscar campaign?

Meeting with Guillermo del Toro and listening to him talk about the film; feeling that my work moved him and seemed valuable to him as a work of cinematic art. Also, being up close with an audience and other members of the Academy who connected with the story. It excites me to think that this story is a window for others to look at us and that it brings us closer and generates empathy.