Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features, playing at Dharamshala, is a poignant drama about would-be illegal migrants
Identifying Features may show a journey that may be about the son. But the story is about the mother.
When you think of illegal (would-be) immigrants crossing over, you think of barbed-wire fences, helicopters throwing spotlights on the ground, difficult terrain after difficult terrain to be covered on foot… But the two Mexican boys who set off for Arizona (someone has promised them a job) in Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features could be taking a trip to Paradise. (And maybe that is what the US is to them.) They’re close to the camera, and we see them from behind. And before them, beyond them, lies a lush field, and beyond that lie mountains, and above them, clouds send forth shafts of soft sunlight.
But the voiceover we hear over this visual is far from idyllic. It’s from the mother of one of the boys: “The last we heard from them, they were taking a bus to the border.” She is with the mother of the other boy, at what appears to be a police station. The two boys are missing. The mothers are given an album containing pictures of dead youths, one of whom is one of those two boys. But where’s the other one? And so, his mother — Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) — decides to set out in search. He may be dead, she realises. But she needs to know.
Thus begins a journey that takes Magdalena from a migrant shelter to a bus station (the boys did take a bus, after all) to the home of an old man in a faraway rural community who happened to be on that bus. Along the way, she meets Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who is looking for his mother. They travel together. She tells him, “From behind, you almost look like (my son).” Miguel says, “From behind we all look alike.” And I thought back to that earlier visual of the two boys from the film’s opening scenes, when they took off on their fateful journey. Perhaps this is why the camera was behind them. To their mothers, they are specific individuals. But in the larger scheme of things in this story, they could be anyone.
They could be Miguel himself. He, too, left Mexico and landed up in the US. He tells Magdalena that his mother used to give him money and he always asked her to save the money, use it to knock their house down and build a better one, a bigger one, with a room all to herself. Now, with regret, he tells Magdalena, “But when I grew up, I accepted the money and left. If I hadn’t been deported I would have never come back.” It’s a terrible image — that of a son prepared never to see his mother again.
And what about Magdalena? A terrible image hangs over her, too — that of a mother who may never see her son again. In a beautiful scene, she visits someone with authority (a woman, but we don’t see her) and talks about her situation. The woman asks if Magdalena has any money. Magdalena says yes. I thought the woman was going to ask for a bribe. But she simply asks Magdalena to buy herself a bus ticket and go back home. “A lot of people go missing in this town. Some trying to cross the border, some when they are sent back… Or just for being on the roads… So really, go back home. I am not saying this in bad faith. If your son is alive, he will call. If he is not, well, he won’t.”
If this woman’s tone is flat, it’s because she sees this every day: the body bags containing dead young men with their dead dreams; the people who come in search of them, and end up scurrying out because of the stench of decomposition; the blood samples being taken from kin in case a match turns up and helps identify one of those “bodies”; the common grave that awaits those who remain unidentified; the things that these men carried with them that are now what the film’s title says, “identifying features”... (Magdalena looks at a bag and recognises it as her son’s. She packed it herself.)
The filmmaking, at most times, is as matter-of-fact as this woman’s statement — and that’s why the melodramatic twist at the end comes as a shock. (It involves the fate of Magdalena’s son.) As it played out, I was torn. Should I see this as a larger statement about would-be illegal migrants? Or are we in the realm of myth, given that an earlier scene has given us the image of the devil (as in, Satan, literally) at the site of a massacre? Did Magdalena deserve this after her arduous emotional and physical journey? Or is her mind playing hallucinatory tricks on her?
Identifying Features is Fernanda Valdez’s first film. I know I’m stereotyping hugely here, but I wondered what a male filmmaker would have done in her place. Given the dramatic possibilities, would he have made this more of a hunt-and-find action drama? Ron Howard did that in The Missing (2003), where Cate Blanchett played the Magdalena part, a woman whose daughter is abducted and thus ends up what the title says. John Ford did that even earlier, in The Searchers (1956), about a man’s search for his “missing” niece.
This is not to say Fernanda Valdez couldn’t have made a rough, tough action adventure from this material. It’s just that she chooses to make a middle-aged woman her protagonist, and ends up making a poignant drama that’s neither about the issue (migrants) nor the mystery (what happened to the son?). Identifying Features is about Magdalena, who is prepared to accept that her son is dead, but not that he may be dead. Either way, she needs to know. She needs closure. The journey may be about the son, but the story is about the mother.
Identifying Features is being screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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