In Mexico, women directors take the lead

MEXICO CITY – As a young girl growing up in 1980s Mexico, the idea of ​​becoming a filmmaker was almost unthinkable for Fernanda Valadez...


MEXICO CITY – As a young girl growing up in 1980s Mexico, the idea of ​​becoming a filmmaker was almost unthinkable for Fernanda Valadez. Other than a film club at the local university, there were no cinemas in his hometown, Guanajuato, and films directed by women were rare.

“The dream of making films was something far away,” she recalled recently. “We grew up feeling that making films was very difficult.”

Some 30 years later, however, that dream has come true. Valadez’s first film, “Functional identification,” won two grand prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, and this year it won the award for best film, director and screenplay, among others, at Ariel awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars.

After decades of struggling for recognition in a male-dominated industry, filmmakers like Valadez are setting Mexican cinema on fire, not only freeing up more work, but also winning critical acclaim and major accolades that have long been in demand. reserved for their male peers.

In a society where machismo has often held back women and where gender-based violence is rife, the rise and recognition of female directors reflects a broader social change brought about both by an emboldened feminist movement in Mexico and an urgent conversation about the sexism around the world.

“It took years to prepare,” said Valadez. “But I am very happy to be part of a generation of women telling powerful stories.”

Getting here was not easy, neither for Valadez nor for his fellow filmmakers.

Tatiana Huezo is a Salvadoran-Mexican director, who in 2017 became the first woman to win the Ariels staging award. His latest film, “Prayers for the Stolen, ”Who received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is the Mexican Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Oscars, and was last week on the list of finalists for the statuette. If nominated, Huezo would become the first Mexican woman to compete for the award, although compatriots like Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro have dominated the top prizes in recent times.

When Huezo was a little girl, her mother snuck her into the cinema to see arthouse films. The director remembers being enchanted and sometimes frightened by the films of David Lynch and François Truffaut. But when she started studying in Mexico Cinema training center, she found herself confronted with sexism.

Huezo had signed up to become a director of photography, but once in school, male directors didn’t take her into their projects, so she had to both shoot and direct her own.

“They would say ‘it’s too heavy with the cameras’,” she said.

Valadez encountered similar obstacles at the Film Training Center, where she was one of four women in a class of 15. She said some female film school students were asked inappropriate questions, such as whether they were going to have children or if they would be able to do so. transport equipment.

“We women are faced with more filters,” she said. “Men of these generations are brought up to believe that fate is in their hands. “

Sexism has long been a problem in Mexican film schools, said Maricarmen de Lara, a feminist filmmaker and professor who was director of the film school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico from 2015 to 2019.

The industry was even worse when she was a young student, with sets run by men. “These were men who downplayed women’s work, and they did it publicly,” Lara said, adding that a few were violent. “There were cinematographers who wouldn’t even accept a female assistant photographer.”

But women have still managed to make films in the country for decades, said Arantxa Luna, the critic and screenwriter, pointing to Adela Sequeyro, who worked as a producer and director in the 1930s, and Maria Novaro, who, along with Lara, was part of the feminist collective Cine Mujer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The legacy of the feminist film movement has been particularly lasting for Mexican documentaries: between 2010 and 2020, women directed a third of documentaries in the country, against only 16% of fiction films.

Yet it has been an uphill battle.

“Fifteen, twenty years ago in Mexico there weren’t many female directors,” said documentary filmmaker Natalia Almada, who won an award. Sundance Best Director Award 2009. “Even being in the field as a woman with a camera and making films meant something. “

Off-camera, the women had an impact beyond directing. Behind some of the most prominent Mexican male filmmakers of the past 20 years are also producers like Bertha Navarro, whose credits include many of Guillermo del Toro’s most acclaimed films, and Mónica Lozano Serrano, who was an associate producer on “Amores Perros” by Alejandro González Iñarritu. A former president of the Mexican Film Academy, Lozano has in recent years public funding prohibited for cinema in Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood success of Iñarritu, Cuarón and del Toro, nicknamed “the three amigos, ” has also helped the industry in Mexico, which has seen an increase in attention and money for cinema. Almada said they “took a kind of international look at Mexico as a place where interesting work is done.”

The result has been an avalanche of Mexican cinema and a corresponding increase in the number of films directed by women. In 2000, “Amores Perros” was one of 28 Mexican feature films; in 2019, they were more than 200, according to official figures. In 2008, only five films were directed by women, by 2018, this number had risen to 47.

Cinema grew as society evolved. An emboldened feminist movement more and more took to the streets in Mexico, demanding an end to gender-based violence, and the #MeToo movement has also emerged.

Valadez said the cultural shift brought about by the #MeToo movement became apparent in the reception of his previous project, “The Darkest Days of Us” (2017), the story of a woman haunted by the death of her sister, produced by Valadez’s production partner, Astrid Rondero.

“Before #MeToo went viral, when we were still on the rise, there were comments that the movie was even aggressive towards men,” she said. After the movement exploded, Valadez said: “He started to understand that this was a movie about what #MeToo was putting on the table, the micro-attacks, the violence, the abuse.”

The changes initiated by #MeToo have been felt throughout the film industry in Mexico. In September, the activist group #YaEsHora (It’s Time), in collaboration with the Boston Center for Latin America and eight Mexican production companies, launched the first “Global Protocol Against Harassment,” a series of procedures and regulations aimed at preventing and punish sexual abuse in the film industry.

Meanwhile, the Film Training Center, where Valadez and Huezo studied, announcement that from this year, half of the places of its main courses would be reserved for women.

Still, there is still work to be done, say the directors. Of more than 100 Mexican feature films produced in 2020, when the industry was hit by the pandemic, 17% were directed by women, up from 20% the year before and 25% in 2018.

“There’s still a long way to go – it’s not yet equal,” Huezo said. “And I hope we get there because it will enrich the cinema so much.”

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