¡Viva! Film Notes – Valentina o la serenidad

Dr Carmen Herrero, Manchester Metropolitan University, explores Ángeles Cruz’s Valentina o la serenidad, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2024 on 17 & 20 Apr.

Valentina or the Serenity is the second feature film of Ángeles Cruz, a Ñuu Savi woman, from Oaxaca, Mexico. As well as working as an actress, she has directed three short films: The Doldrums or How to Cure Sadness (2012), The Letter (2013) and Arcangel (2018). In 2021 her feature film debut, Nudo Mixteco, won the Mexican Academy Award for best first feature, as well as other prizes at international festivals. Nudo Mixteco was part of the ¡Viva! programme in 2022.

Valentina or the Serenity is a powerful tale of grief and acceptance. It tells the story of Valentina, a 7-year-old girl, who after losing her father must comprehend the meaning of death. Facing pain and fear with courage, Valentina’s mourning leads to acceptance, to serenity, to the understanding that life must go on.

The origin of the film is partly autobiographical. The experience of losing her father at the age of nine had a huge impact on Ángeles Cruz and changed her perspective on the world. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she felt again a tremendous fear of losing a loved one.  As the director has confessed, “this feeling (fear) became the leitmotiv for writing the script of Valentina”. However, the main characters, Valentina (Danae Ahuja Aparicio) and her friend Pedro (Alexander Gabriel) are fictional.

Ángeles Cruz’s work must be understood in the context of indigenous filmmaking in Latin America. The film you are going to watch today got funding from the Stimulus for Audiovisual Creation in Mexico and Central America for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Communities (ECAMC). For Cruz, this in a powerful boost that allows indigenous communities to make films: “I know there is resistance to making the world of filmmaking more diverse. From the communities we have powerful stories to tell and we also have to get them out to the world. The world has a right to know them just as we know what is outside.”

There is a group of new filmmakers that are bringing to the screen the perspective of their communities, the original peoples of Mexico (Xun Sero, Florencia Gómez Santiz, Xóchitl Enríquez, and Ángeles Cruz, among others – see IMCINE’s 2023 video on the topic). They are bringing different narratives to Mexican cinema and sharing the diversity of their culture. The narratives of their work give visibility to their indigenous culture, sharing a wide range of themes: the importance of preserving nature; the diversity of the cultures and knowledge of the indigenous communities; the condemnation of violence; the migratory journey that many take to the USA; a portrayal of different types of discrimination, as well as denouncing the misogyny and machismo prevalent in the community. They make films about their communities, with their stories and languages incorporated into the dialogues of their documentaries, short films and fictional works. Moreover, the work of these indigenous filmmakers draws from different collaborative mechanisms. For example, to create Valentina’s look the whole team contributed with their ideas: for the director, wearing a cape was part of the characterization of Valentina; the young actress who plays Valentina brought her preferred hairstyle, braids, and types of clothes; and the production team added more ideas.

For Cruz, the film “is a collective creation, where each person who was part of the film contributed with their vision and talent to bring Valentina to life”. In fact, many of the secondary characters were played by people from the area, as non-professional actors, including the two children that play Valentina and Pedro, who were chosen during the work they did in creative workshops (writing, games, and language learning).

Like her previous films, her second feature film takes place in her community of Villa Guadalupe Victoria, Oaxaca. For the filmmaker, Valentina represents a “re-encounter with the forest and nature, through play, appreciation and nostalgia”. Inside the forest, there are little ranches and places to play and observe nature. From there, she creates a story that it is local and universal. As the director has noted: “for many of us who come from communities, the forest is close, it is enough to go out and walk to be surrounded by trees. But for those who live in the city, going to the forest means planning and embarking on a journey. That is also Valentina…: inviting us to accompany her in her discovery of nature, of pain and of the comfort of absence.”

Cruz uses the Mixtec language with different purposes. Firstly, for Valentina it is a way of trying to communicate with her father. As the filmmaker suggests, learning her father’s language is a way of reconnecting with him after his death. In addition, for Cruz the presence of Mixtec is particularly important because it acts as a way of preserving the language. However, as she observes, the use of the language “it is not limited to its verbal quality”, but also a way of connecting the community with their ancestors, “with this sonorous territory”.

The film offers a portrayal of this community’s traditions. For instance, many decisions that seem individual to us, are made collectively in her community; as an example of this pay attention to the scene in which the schoolteacher talks to Valentina’s mother.  Medicine is another area for a collective intervention. The film showcases what Ángeles Cruz calls the “medicine of the soul” that helps Valentina to overcome her grief: “They take people who are important to the girl to the place where her father had the accident, where her soul is lost. The process that Valentina goes through, maybe in other cultures they solve it with therapy, a party or rituals. We do it with silences. For me it was important to understand that I come from a culture where little is said and where things are understood in a different way.”

Ángeles Cruz pays particular importance to the film language used to narrate this story. From an aesthetic point of view, there is a certain documentary style in the way Valentina connects with nature, understanding as she does that when a loved one dies the place where they lost their life becomes a place of respect.  In particular, the river serves as a metaphor for the journey between life and death. There are many images that look closely at the texture of the tree, the river and the ants, inspired by Cruz’s childhood memories. Valentina or the Serenity focuses on dealing with the grief though the silences, through the physical and sensorial experiences of the images.  This way of narrating and framing brings us close to the protagonist, to her emotions and subjectivity.

According to the Mixtecs, a healthy person is a person who is happy, serene, eager to work and eat, whose eyes shine. I hope you enjoy Valentina’s healing journey toward serenity.