Mexico’s Tatiana Huezo and Abner Benaim of Panama, whose respective dramas, “Prayers for the Stolen” and “Plaza Catedral,” made the coveted shortlist in the Oscars’ international feature category, have quite a few things in common. Both have mainly worked in documentary filmmaking, although in the case of Benaim, he made a hit comedy in 2009, “Chance,” before focusing on nonfiction films.
Neither are strangers to the Oscar experience. Benaim has represented Panama twice. With its first submission to the Oscars in 2014, an account of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, “Invasion,” and in 2018 with “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” which gets up close and personal with the actor, multi-Grammy winner and activist who also served as minister of tourism and ran for president of Panama.
“Prayers for the Stolen” is Huezo’s first narrative feature and her second turn at representing Mexico, the first time was with her documentary “Tempestad” in 2017.
Both “Prayers” and “Plaza Catedral” deal with the violence inflicted on the young, which for Benaim hit closer to home when his non-pro teenage lead, Fernando Xavier de Casta, was gunned down a few months before the pic’s release. He dedicates “Plaza Catedral” to him and to the many “children and teenagers who die every day in Latin America, victims of senseless violence.”
A coming-of-age fable, “Prayers for the Stolen” follows three young girls, also played by non-pros, in a remote village where the danger of being abducted by drug cartels is ever-present.
Asked why she thinks her film has resonated with viewers, Huezo muses: “I’d like to believe that it’s because the film draws you into the girls’ tiny universes and also brings home the impact of violence on families’ lives, almost like a punch to the gut. But it also connects through the beauty, tenderness and purity of their innocent lives.”
“Plaza Catedral” revolves around Alicia (played by Ilse Salas) who, having lost her 6-year-old son in a freak accident, remains grief-stricken and withdrawn. She ignores the scrappy street kid played by Xavier de Casta, who demands to be paid for watching her car in the titular Plaza Catedral. One day, she is shocked out of her self-imposed isolation when he shows up at her doorstep, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Samuel Goldywn Films has picked up U.S. rights.
“It’s always a mystery when a film resonates with people,” Benaim says. “But I think ‘Plaza Catedral’ affects people in two waves — first they are moved by the story and the performances and then a second wave of emotion comes over them when they realize that reality has caught up with the story.
“The reality of what happened to Fernando does not allow us the luxury to think that it was just a film.”
Both dramas reflect their documentary filmmaking roots. As Variety critic Jessica Kiang observed: “Benaim brings some of his documentarian sensibility to bear on a story that might otherwise feel a little schematic.”
“I think that having worked so much on documentaries makes me less afraid of the uncertainty and lack of control that is sometimes associated with non-actors — I actually see it the other way around … I enjoy the freshness and unpredictable as welcome surprises,” he says. “One can detect when things feel real and when they don’t — and that alertness for what feels fake is something I keep turned on while making a documentary or fiction film.”
Huezo concurs: “As a documentary filmmaker, you become very astute and empathetic; you develop an instinct for recognizing the real moments of truth, the true emotions in facial expressions, in the glances exchanged and in the movements of the actors.”