Writers: Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero
Director: Fernanda Valadez
When migrants embark on the difficult journey to cross a border illegally, what happens to the family and friends they leave behind, especially when things go fatally wrong? Debut director Fernanda Valadez and co-writer Astrid Rondero’s film Identifying Features, screening at the CASA Festival 2021, examines the cost for one mother desperately trying to track down her son and the terrible process of acceptance.
Magdalena understands her son’s decision to try to cross the Mexico-US border, but when his friend is found dead alongside her son’s bag and with no proof Jesus was with him, Magdalena refuses to believe he is gone. Instead, she embarks on a dangerous journey across the countryside, tracing his final movements as each encounter with a stranger gives her a new piece of the puzzle.
There is such a quiet dignity in the character of Magdalena, that without hysteria or fuss she just methodically pursues her goal. The unshakeable belief in her son drives her to undertake a perilous trek across Mexico but Valadez and Rondero have created a woman of infinite practical reserves, admirably prepared to suffer any minor inconvenience if it takes her closer to where she needs to be, and it is that stoicism that makes Magdalena such a great anchor for the movie.
Identifying Features never shies away from the hard reality of border crossings and using Magdalena’s perspective, the audience sees that hidden side in large-scale facilities where bodies are processed and identified using blood tests with living relatives, photos of personal effects and, eventually, a truck filled with body bags where physical recognition can take place.
Valadez and Rondero contrast this maternal perspective with the returning Miguel, deported from the US and transported from his detention centre across the caged border and back home. Bringing these two characters together serves a purpose, one that sets a particular expectation for the audience which the writers play on, offering hope before snatching it away much like the search process for those like Magdalena.
There is a political context here that is never properly filled-in, and while there is a sense of the country on a knife-edge which puts the characters in jeopardy, quite what is happening and why is not clear enough. Similarly, the film gives little sense of the geography of Magdalena’s search, and although she follows the clues from bus stations to migrant camps and rural homes, the scale of the area covered and its effects on her motivation remains frustratingly intangible.
Mercedes Hernández gives such a strong and understated performance as the worried but determined mother refusing to give up on her child, needing to feel she is doing something in order to cope with the overwhelming evidence of loss. And it’s so interesting to see a film that seriously and sympathetically explores the perspective of the parent instead of the riskier and high-stakes drama at the border itself.
Supported by David Illescas as Miguel who also wordlessly conveys the frustrations of his own journey, Identifying Features is a surprising film in many ways, holding back its most unexpected change of pace for the conclusion. Managing to be simultaneously descriptive and narratively dramatic, Valadez and Rondero’s film conveys all the pain of the parents desperately waiting for news yet still hoping the phone never rings.
Identifying Features will be screened on 15 September at the Curzon Cinema Hoxton as part of the CASA Festival 2021 and will be followed by a digital Q&A with Director Fernanda Valadez and Producer Astrid Rondero.