Film Review: Identifying Features (NZIFF 2020)

The story of missing teens and adults in Mexico, has been festering for years, as they disappear somewhere along the way, trying to cross the border to the promised land of the USA. In Identifying Features, a mother whose teenage son is missing after boarding a bus to a border town, undertakes a trip into the Heart of Darkness of the missing and murdered.

Director: Fernanda Valadez    Writers: Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez
Starring: Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas

This is a directorial debut for Fernanda Valadez; and it’s a story she also co-wrote.

The story of missing teens and adults, has been festering away for many years in Mexico. Crossing the border to the promised land of the United States. Human trafficking. The stranglehold that organised crime, drug syndicate warlords and cartels have on the country. Corrupt politicians, police and military. The investigating journalists who have also been murdered or gone missing, numbering well over a hundred.

In Ocampo a mayoral candidate was murdered in 2018, just prior to elections. The entire police force there was eventually arrested after they prevented Federal police from initially entering the area following the crime.

Valadez has presented this scourge and epidemic in the form of an odyssey from which a lone woman follows a trail which is forever being suppressed or studiously turned a blind eye to.

Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) lives in Guanajuato State, on a small plot of land she farms. She last saw her son Jesus about 2 months ago. He had left with a friend to Ocampo by bus. The destination, Arizona.

Two months and no word. There are rumours the bus was attacked.  She tells the Police that he would have called her. The officer is openly not interested. Eventually she is given a massive file of photos of bodies uncovered in shallow graves. Mostly young men, some burnt. She identifies a backpack and clothes, as her son’s. She packed them herself.

She is urged to sign papers declaring her son dead, but unless she sees him, she can’t accept it. Other families are in the same predicament. Burnt bodies are DNA-matched to parents. One of those mothers offers money to Magdalena to try and find out what happened to her son.

The film then uses long tracking shot sequences to document her journey towards the northern border towns.

At the same time, we pick up Miguel (David Illescas), a young man roughly the same age as Jesus. He is making the opposite journey. He is being deported back to Mexico after being illegally in the United States.

In one brilliant extended tracking shot, we follow him from the border checkpoint, across a bridge and into a massive holding pen full of detainees, would-be immigrants, families.

Miguel is making a similar odyssey to find his mother whom he has lost track of.

As with the other legendary movie, of which this one is a touchstone for, the journey becomes more dislocating and ominous. And similar to Apocalypse Now, the wildness of the unfolding story is matched by an unsettling soundtrack from Clarice Jensen.

There is very little talk. A lot of what the movie expresses is in Hernandez’s face and eyes.

A carefully-woven story and a great debut for a new film-maker.

Identifying Features is showing as part of the NZ International Film Festival. For tickets/online access, please go HERE.

Rev Orange Peel