¡Viva! Film Notes – Sin señas particulares

Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, explores Fernanda Valadez’s Sin señas particulares, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2021. 

Some of you have already heard me talk a little bit about this film, Sin señas particulares (with the translated title Identifying Features), as part of the ¡Viva! 2021 podcast – it’s a half hour run down of this year’s film line-up with the three festival programmers, Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and I, chatting in some detail about eight of the 18 films screening in ¡Viva! this year. As I mentioned in the podcast, Sin señas particulares is a film that quickly caught my eye last September, when I was an online attendee of the San Sebastián International Film Festival. With this being her first feature-length film, the director Fernanda Valadez was new to me, but I soon discovered that she had already achieved national recognition for her first short film, De este mundo, as well as international plaudits for her graduation film Cuatrocientas maletas, a 23-minute short which was expanded to become the feature film Sin señas particulares.

To make her first feature, Valadez won support from various Mexican funds for the arts, as well as the prestigious Work in Progress Award from San Sebastián 2019; and after much success at festivals like Sundance and Berlin, Sin señas particulares went on to win the Best Latin American Film Award in San Sebastián last year. On top of all this praise for the film, I was also pleased to recognise the names of two of its co-producers, the Mexican brothers Yossy and Jack Zagha – Yossy was in fact here in Manchester for our very first ¡Viva! event at HOME back in 2015, representing a different type of Mexican road movie, En el último trago (translated as One for the Road), which was directed by his brother Jack.

But belonging to the road movie genre is really where the similarities end between that road trip buddy movie and this much more tragic journey across Mexico. The central character of Sin señas particulares is Magdalena, a bereft mother who sets out on a mission to find her missing teenage son, Jesús. Like many young people from Mexico and countries further south, Jesús and his friend have set off for the USA in search of a better life, feeling their hometown offers them very limited opportunities. But as is tragically common amongst these vulnerable migrants, the boys seem to disappear without trace, setting Magdalena off on her own dangerous journey from Guanajuato to the borderlands.

Fernanda Valadez describes the process of writing and directing this film as beginning way back in 2012, when reading wave after wave of disturbing news stories about the social and humanitarian crises developing in Mexico. She lists: “disappearance and killings of activists and journalists; massive violence against migrants, women and minorities; emergence of dozens of clandestine mass graves; increasing numbers of internally displaced people; [and] populated settlements changing into ghost towns.” Valadez then left the comforts of the capital city to return to her hometown, Guanajuato, where she interviewed locals and immigrants who had numerous personal horror stories to tell. She decided to use fiction to unite and reflect these real tragedies, and to somehow try and make sense of so much pain and loss.

In the opening scene of the film, Magdalena’s son Jesús emerges from the smoking fields of their smallholding carrying his machete, casting a rather menacing and foreboding image of the dangers he’s about to face out on the road. Scenes of actual violence are very rare in the film, you might relieved to hear, but instead Valadez makes clever use of imagery such as the aforementioned burning fields, or the close-ups of an eye surgeon at work, to create an uncomfortable atmosphere that hints at the hidden horrors. On other occasions we see glimpses of police photographs of cadavers, or blurry images of violence, but often the most impactful scenes are the close ups of a character’s face experiencing intense emotions.

Another element of the film’s restrained style that I really appreciated is the total lack of soaring soundtrack; instead, the images and dialogue are allowed to speak for themselves, and I found watching it to be an emotional experience even without the use of sentimental music. Similarly, the film avoids too much camera movement and goes in for mostly static, carefully framed shots, often in medium close-up, perhaps lingering on the face of just one person in a conversation, and frequently framed by a window or door, or reflected in a mirror. Apart from creating a very satisfying visual aesthetic, I feel this also enhances a sense of helplessness and claustrophobia experienced by these grieving relatives who find themselves trapped in tragedy.

A large proportion of screen time is focussed on the impassive yet also quietly expressive face of lead actor Mercedes Hernández, who plays Magdalena. Her great performance is even more impressive as this is her debut lead role in a film, although she does have extensive experience as a theatre actor. Her first film credit was in the great Mexican film El Violín, which some ¡Viva! long-timers might remember from way back in 2006. And you might have already seen Mercedes Hernández on screen at this year’s festival, if you attended our preview screening of Nuevo orden, introduced by Jason Wood. If you did miss that one, don’t worry, because it’s one of the rare Latin American films to get a UK general release, and is returning to HOME from Fri 20 Aug.

While Sin señas particulares is undoubtedly about what the director calls “a whirlwind of violence” in contemporary Mexico, there are also moments of kindness and compassion shared between Magdalena and the people she meets on her journey, even if they’re sometimes furtive and perhaps muted by fear. Valadez counters the horrors she’s depicting with the affirmation that “it is also a story of resistance, of our capacity to give meaning to a fractured existence, even if the meaning is endurance itself.” Especially if you’re coming to this with minimal knowledge of the daily reality for Mexicans at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, then I think this film will be a revelatory and rather sobering experience.  The injustice, lawlessness and corruption that blights people’s lives demands a reaction from audiences in Mexico and around the world, and the director stated her intention to “open questions about the cycles of violence and about our capacity to cross the boundaries that divide victims and perpetrators, a thin border that lives within ourselves.”

The themes of Sin señas particulares contain echoes of another great Mexican road movie that we screened back in 2015, when the director Alejandra Sánchez was here to present her film Seguir viviendo. So, I was delighted to read that Fernanda is currently producing Alejandra’s next film, the documentary Dear Ana. No doubt there’s plenty more great work to come from Fernanda Valadez, as producer, writer and director, and I very much hope to bring it to future editions of ¡Viva!. But meanwhile I hope you enjoy this her first feature film as you take a deep dive into the darker aspects of Mexican society.