‘The Wolves’: A Stunning Story About Sacrifices

Samuel Kishi crafts a remarkable film that reflects on the immigrant experience and the sacrifices they must make to survive.

I am a son of an immigrant, my father had to make the toughest decision to come over to a country he knew nothing about to be able to be with my mother. My mother is a daughter of immigrants, her parents made a tough decision to cross the border and provide a better life to their children than the one they had in Mexico. My family is filled with a history of being immigrants and we carry that with us every day of our lives. We are reminded every time we look around of the countless struggles and obstacles we crossed to be able to stand comfortably in this land we still don’t know a lot about. These are not easy decisions to make but sometimes they are the only viable ones. You have to leave your life back home and start from zero in a new place where you know nothing of the customs, language, and culture that you find yourself in now. There are many like you around but even then you still don’t entirely feel like you belong over here but you remember that in this life you have to sacrifice a lot. The Wolves is a film that follows these exact beats and speaks on this very experience.

The Wolves is directed by Samuel Kishi and stars Martha Reyes Arias, Maximiliano Nájar Márquez, and Leonardo Nájar Márquez as a family that immigrates to the United States from Mexico. The boys stay in their apartment that does not have a proper bed to sleep on while their mother works long shifts for multiple jobs while trying to make ends meet. The boys spend their days hanging out with each other and listening to tapes that their mother has left them with stories of the past and English lessons. The boys are given a set of rules they must follow but as their stay prolongs things get harder and harder to understand. All while they are told that one day they will get to go to Disneyland. These boys befriend their landlords while staying at this complex and get to know the neighborhood children who pose problems for them.

The film is expertly directed with a beautiful screenplay to accompany it. There was not a single moment here where my attention was somewhere else. I was emotional throughout this whole ordeal watching as these boys try to understand how much their mom is sacrificing for them. Maybe it is because I relate a lot to what these boys feel because I grew up a lot like them with not a lot as times were very tight with money. The film also is crafted with some exquisite and powerful cinematography by Octavio Arauz. Our main cast also give wonderful performances that creep right into your heart even when there is not a lot of words being spoken. The Wolves enriches your experience with empathy and beauty in understanding the immigrant experience. What is not being said directly is discussed through its moments of tenderness in the story.

We are following this journey with these children as viewers to understand the sacrifices someone must make to provide a good life to those they love. We understand everything must be given up when we have to leave all we know. We sympathize with the feeling of being lost and not knowing how to ask for the help when we really need it. We learn to be patient because we don’t always understand the severity of the situations we find ourselves in. Most importantly, we learn to just keep moving forward because at the end of the day we are all a culmination of the sacrifices that those who came before us made.

The Wolves is available to watch on HBO Max.

‘Identifying Features’: The Harrowing Realities of the Borderlands

Fernanda Valadez shocks with her quiet and petrifying feature directorial debut look at the dangers of crossing the U.S. Mexico Border.

CREDIT: Kino Lorber

I won’t lie, it has been difficult to put pen to paper when it comes to what I thought about this film. Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is incredible and that is a complete understatement. What she is able to accomplish is so moving and harrowing at the same time. I kind of hate myself for waiting so long to finally watch this. This is not just a film about unconditional love but the absolute terrifying reality of crossing the border. This is a story that is known all too well, I mean there are a lot of movies that have done this story before like Babel, Desierto, Under The Same Moon, and others that have discussed the pain and dangers of trying to gain a better life by crossing to a neighboring country. Valadez constructs this masterpiece by engrossing the viewer in a journey that absolutely never lets go of you or maybe you just can’t help but keep looking.

Identifying Features is a pretty simple movie on paper, a mother goes looking for her child after he goes missing when he and his friend embark on a journey to cross the Arizona/Mexico border. The cast includes actual mothers who are still looking for their missing children today like our main actress Mercedes Hernandez. This is already something that impressed me because I am a fan of non professional actors’ performances. There is something about someone who is not experienced in the art of acting that can come on and express themselves artistically without ever having acted on stage or in front of the camera. In regards to this film though you have people who know from experience these hardships. They are able to bring another level of experience and knowledge that any other actor could bring to it. The film is expertly shot by Claudia Berrecil Bulos who captures natural lighting in some beautiful external shots. My jaw was on the floor throughout the third act with all of its rich visuals accompanied by an exquisite color palette. The music adds to the hypnotic and mesmerizing nature of the film that creates this very uneasy atmosphere. Throughout it all, the strongest part of this film is the script and beautiful direction from Fernanda Valadez.

It is really hard to approach these stories for me living on the border and being a son of immigrants. Part of me wants to scream to the industry that we don’t need more and more of trauma stories being the only stories about Latinos on the screen, but also we fail to understand that these are our stories whether we like them or not. These are the stories of our ancestors and we have to make sure to not let these stories die off. We have to point the mirror to society and show them exactly what is happening because then they will never understand the immigrant experience. Every single time Mercedes Hernandez is on screen I am heartbroken. I want to reach over the screen and hug her because this is a reality that is too well known in Latin America but especially on the border. Valadez is hoping that if we cannot understand the immigrant experience we can at least begin to empathize with the immigrant experience. Sadly, I know there are still people who will watch this and say, “well they should have stayed in their country.” I think this film perfectly tells you that we wish it was that easy. I just hope anyone who is still going through this can watch this and find a sense of community of grief knowing that they are not alone in their experience.

Fernanda Valadez has a great career ahead of her. Her directorial knowledge shines bright throughout the whole film. The way she chooses shots, lingers on looks, and is able to get these performances out of first time actresses is groundbreaking for her upcoming career. She has a very patient approach to her thematic characteristics being discussed. She is an impeccable artist who will make more wonders like this in her lifetime. I know I am really excited to see what else she will make.

You can buy or rent Identifying Features on most purchasing sites like Amazon Prime Video.

‘I’m No Longer Here’: A Masterpiece of Identity From Mexico

Fernando Frías directs an incredible film full of emotional depth and nuance that exceeds all expectations.

CREDIT: Netflix

The last time I wrote to you all I was stuck inside a home because the world outside was falling apart, and not much has changed since. I am still very active on the podcast and starting season two of The Cinema Condition soon. This year in film has been filled with a lot of movies but a lot of them were not available to the public, so my year in film has been slow for the most part. Throughout the year I have watched some great films like Bacurau (2020), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), Sound of Metal (2020), and of course Tenet (2020). I was convinced for the most part that nothing would top my then favorite film of the year, Bacurau (2020). I was incredibly wrong.

I’m No Longer Here (2020) or Ya no estoy aquí (2020) looks at the life of Ulises a 17 year old boy who is part of a gang named “Los Terkos” (“The Stubborn”) as he is exiled from his community after a misunderstanding. Ulises then goes to New York City as he lives in Queens and begins to navigate his new life as a foreigner in a new world. This journey is met with discrimination, self doubt, and an identity crisis. It all blends to create my favorite film of the year.

It is so hard to not approach these films as a Latino but especially a Latino who is a son of immigrants. It is also so hard to not approach this film as someone who very much understands the eternal struggle of a Latino who at times does not really understand their identity. At one point I thought I understood the concept of Latinidad but since then I have lost much grasp of it. Ulises is like a lot of the people I grew up around, we were into different music, from some of the worst neighborhoods you did not want to step in, wore different clothes, did our hair differently from what was expected from us, and because of that we were easy targets to be bullied. When we were not bullied we were used as symbols and for others to use for their own gain. We did not fit a mold and we were never supposed to fit that mold.

I did not have the life that Ulises had completely but I knew a lot of people in México who were living there especially in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon in 2010-2013. They were too exiled from their land but instead of street gangs it was their government who pleaded them to come over to the United States because of the government’s incompetency to handle the situation at hand. Life became harder and the land of opportunity they thought they would be introduced to was just not there for them. Once again they were discriminated in this other part of the world for being them.

What Fernando Frías does with all these aspects is create a beautiful but heartbreaking story that is often too real for others. The cinematography is fluid and beautiful especially with its naturalistic lighting. The Kolombiano music included works so well to create the atmosphere and ambiance of what makes Ulises unique and a free spirit. The sense of community is felt throughout the whole film. The dread of being seen as weird and “the other” is heartbreaking. The pain of coming back to your land but seeing that the landscape of its people has been changed forever and it is not the land you were exiled from. Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño gives us a truly nuanced and beautiful performance as Ulises. The non linear aspect of the film works well with the structure especially if you think about it as Ulises remembering his life back then while in Queens. Everything works and it all creates such a beauty that speaks on so many levels.

Ya no estoy aquí (2020) is the official selection from México for the Best International Film category at next year’s Oscars. Watch Ya no estoy aquí (2020) on Netflix.