Fernanda Valadez made a stunning feature directorial debut with Identifying Features (2020). For her sophomore effort, Sujo (2024), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, she re-teamed with Astrid Rondero, who wrote Identifying Features. They share writing and directing credits for Sujo, and also co-produced and co-edited the film as well. 

Sujo is as ambitious as it is accomplished. The film tells the story of the title character – from the age of four (Kevin Aguilar) to 17 (Juan Jesús Varela) – through the eyes of various characters in his life. These include his father, Josué (Juan Jesús Varela Hernández); his aunt, Nemesia (Yadira Perez Esteban); his non-biological “brothers,” Jai (Alexis Jassiel Varela) and Jeremy (Jairo Hernández Ramirez), who are the sons of Nemesia’s partner, Rosalia (Karla Garrido); and Susan (Sandra Lorenzano), a kindly teacher. 

The story tracks Sujo as he tries to break the cycle of violence that permeates his world. His father is a sicario, who is killed early on. The four-year-old Sujo goes to live with his aunt, Nemesia, who keeps him hidden for his safety. Sujo grows up with Jai and Jeremy, and as the youths enter their teen years, they become involved in the dangerous world of the local cartel. One sequence features a particularly violent act, and it, along with other fears, prompt Sujo to escape to Mexico City. As he works to establish a new life, he takes a job and tries to get an education sitting in on a class taught by Susan at The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico), a free university. When Jai arrives needing a large sum of cash, Sujo’s past catches up with him forcing Sujo to make some difficult decisions. 

Sujo echoes many of the themes the filmmakers addressed in their previous film, such as the bond between a mother and a boy who is not her son, and the horrific violence in Mexico that starts in the countryside but permeates beyond.

Juan Jesús Varela, who stars as Sujo, had a pivotal role in Identifying Features, and his internal, naturalistic performance as Sujo allows viewers to feel for his character. Sujo is also gorgeously filmed. The framing of scenes is painterly, especially with images seen through a car windshield, or an episode at night, lit by a fire. The directors use tracking shots to follow characters and take time to appreciate moments of beauty in nature. 

Sujo also addresses themes of masculinity and gender in the codes that exist between men as well as how the female characters must care for the orphaned Sujo and guide him on his way. The residual effects of the violence in Mexico are addressed here as Sujo, like Identifying Features, shows how the survivors grapple with life after their loved ones are killed (or disappeared) because of the involvement with the drug cartels.

During the Sundance Film Festival, Valadez and Rondero spoke with Senses of Cinema about making Sujo. 

– G.M.K.


I like how we experience Sujo’s life through the eyes of the people who care for him. What prompted you to take this approach to telling his story? 

AR: I started with the first draft and that [idea] was there from the very beginning. We were really influenced by novels. We wanted to make this a coming-of-age story in that kind of fashion – an orphan coming to terms with who he is. But we also wanted to tell this story through different facets, like a prism. At the end, you get a good sense of this young man. We wanted to tell the story as the seasons in the life of this young man. It was important because we do not see that we are the result of the people that we encounter.

What impressed me so much about Identifying Features was how you presented and depicted the various covert networks. There are elements of that in Sujo as well, from the whistling of the sicarios, to the codes of the number tattoos. What research did you do to create the authenticity on screen?

FV: I think because Sujo was written before we shot Identifying Features, the research process happened for both films at the same time. There were so many things we couldn’t tackle with Identifying Features, and we wanted to have a sense of kids growing up in the cycle of violence. The research was done through the work of great Mexico journalists, like Javier Valdez, who has this incredible human approach to violence trying to understand both victims and perpetrators. Javier was later killed because of his work. In terms of research, that was the main inspiration, but as the years pass, we kept on reading journalistic work. When we were casting, we spoke with young people – some who had committed small crimes, and some who felt they had no options and tried to get to the United States. They gave us a sense of this world we tried to depict in Sujo.

How dangerous is it to make these films about violence in Mexico? There must have been some concerns in depicting this world.

AR: I don’t think we felt that with Sujo. We took some scenes away that we felt were not a good idea for our security. We mainly felt it was important to tell this story in this moment in time because there are a lot of orphans in Mexico. As we were shooting – it was different from Identifying Features in that sense – we felt it was getting much worse in Guanajuato, which is Fernanda’s home state and where we shot the film. It is becoming more and more dangerous to shoot scenes in rural areas. 

Sujo, like Identifying Features before it, depicts the bond that develops between a mother and a boy who is not her son. Can you talk about that narrative approach? 

FV: That is one of the aspects that we didn’t question ourselves, but of course, that is the underlining theme we care about as female filmmakers and as part of a minority in Mexico. The empathy and sorority are perhaps one of the pillars that keeps Mexican society together in the midst of all this violence. We see this in the mothers, the sisters, and the daughters of missing people and activists who make families that go beyond genes and blood.

AR: Yeah, like a social responsibility.
FV: Feeling empathy for someone, who is similar to – or not similar to – you that you can protect, and that is very particular of women in Mexico and Latin America. 

Astrid Romero

There is toxic masculinity with Sujo’s father in the beginning of the film, and more in the end with the guys at the boxing gym that tease Sujo as he walks past. In contrast, the women characters are caring and nurturing towards Sujo. Can you talk about depicting the gender dynamics and how Sujo floats between these two worlds – rough and tender? 

AR: Of course! In Mexico, we have a very toxic masculinity. At some point it is also in the centre of all this violence. That has to do with the kids not having many opportunities. As Fernanda said, women’s roles in Mexican society are the nurturers and caregivers. When we were writing this script, it was the first time we were telling the story of a man. The resources we found to understand this character and really care about this boy, were through the acts of women. They are the characters who help him out. As directors and writers, we are trying to say something about caring for these boys because they will become men, and in Mexico, toxic masculinity is the main issue.

Is there a way out? Is education the only path out? 

FV: I think education in different levels. Nemesia is the first “educator.” She offers an alternative to masculinity that is more receptive to otherness, to nature, to emotions. That is also a part of Sujo and what makes him different from other teenagers depicted in the film. And then education in the more traditional, official way. What we are trying to say is that what women can offer is an alternative to violence and frustration.

I appreciated the idea of visibility and invisibility in the film. Sujo is hidden – literally under a table in one scene – which makes watching him experience life in Mexico City in the last chapter so compelling. You reference Jude the Obscure and have other visual and verbal cues of being seen or being a shadow. Can you talk about that theme as it relates to how this orphan boy’s life unfolds and changes?

AR: We wanted to tell this story of this kid who gets away from violence, so he has to hide. The scene under the table, he feels the threatening situation, and we can see and experience the scene through his eyes. That portray how he feels. Then he goes to Mexico City and is hidden in the crowds. Sometimes you are not seen. We wanted to say that too. These are boys that are marginalised in the city. It is internal migration. You don’t know their stories. We felt it was important to portray that. We wanted to take him to university [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México], which is a free university and a symbolic institution. That’s why he is in this place where he is this man and we see his face, and someone cares for him. 

The film is very much about breaking the cycle of violence, the threat of which is constantly in the background, especially when Jai visits Sujo in the city. Can you talk about depicting this world and what you show, or choose not to show?

FV: I particularly relate to Jai’s character because what we want to express through him is he was a loved boy as a child. He was taken care of by his mum and Nemesia, but the context is so dangerous that his path in life was very different from Sujo’s. That is interesting to us. What are the conditions that make these kids feel they have no choice and make them prey to violence and cartels? When Jai comes back in the story, when Sujo is in the city, it is an internal conflict for Sujo; Jai is his brother in the end. Many of us can relate to that. There is no easy way to escape. We did not want to say Jai is the bad one and Sujo is the good one. Their paths in life are different, but Sujo has to make a choice. We leave the film just at the point where we can feel hope for him, but we don’t exactly know what is about to happen.

What observations do you have about the morality in Sujo? People do things for the right and wrong reasons. Money and poverty are motivating factors. How can that system change? 

AR: That’s the wonderful thing about following a character – you understand Sujo at some point and understand what the stakes are. All of us humans can relate to that at different levels. We really feel strongly about the character. Shooting in Mexico City, we felt we were really following Sujo and his life. That comes from a character you care about, and we care about this kid. We are trying to talk about this crisis and all these orphans that are going to grow up in Mexico, and what is going to become of them.

I am always impressed by the visuals in your films. Can you talk about the composition of your images, which create feeling, texture, and emotion?

FV: One of the things when Astrid and I met as students and I read one of her scripts, it was like watching a film. I could tell she could use words like a lens, and that’s what I learned from her. When we cowrite, we discuss the camerawork and staging, so it is a draft for the images. We bring in the cinematographer and it keeps evolving as we cast and look for locations. It’s going deeper into the writing but always in terms of the images. When we prepare for shooting, we agree on how we want things to look. Astrid sketches and storyboards every frame of the film. We talk about that so even when the shot does not end up as we planned, we know we had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve, so we can adapt and be flexible. It is mostly from the writing and then being open to what happens in reality with the actors and locations and what luck can bring to the shot. 

Fernanda Valadez

I notice you have several moments that focus on the natural world – insects, goats, and in one pivotal scene, a horse. We spend time in the fields as well. What observations do you have about life in the Mexican countryside? The episode in the city really feels miles away because of how grounded the first half of the film is.

AR: That is true, because that is our reality in Mexico. Those places where the organised crime has taken control over the areas are beautiful places and there are so many natural things that surround us, so it is very interesting how this terrible drama unfolds in these isolated areas. The animals are witnessing it, and don’t care. The nature is breathtaking. There is a commentary we are trying to make that Mexico is so culturally rich and the nature is so rich. It is sad that all this violence is happening in those places. Also, with the character of Nemesia, we wanted to say that there is something that lingers on that is bigger than us as humans.


You reunite with Juan Jesús Varela from Identifying Features for this film and cast non-professional actors in key roles. Can you talk about working with your actors and how you guided them to approach their characters? 

FV: We tried to take the best of both worlds from professional actors and non-professional actors. The two professional actors in the film are the women who play Nemesia (Yadira Perez Esteban) and Rosalia (Karla Garrido). They were key for us to direct the kids – both the teenagers and the children. [The directors organised a pre-production workshop led by the casting director, Lizeth Rondero, who is Astrid’s sister and a theatre actress.] The common prejudice is that with non-professional actors, you cannot do many takes, because they get tired from repetition, but Lizeth did a great job opening the kids up to the act and the ‘game’ of fiction. We were surprised during shooting that repetition wasn’t a problem because they were so invested in the game and their character. We could work with them – not as professional actors, because acting is a craft that takes years to master – but in the sense that they were willing to go deeply with each take. In many cases the good take was the eighth or the 12th. That was surprising and it changed the way we thought about working with non-professional actors.

AR: We talked with the actors [both professional and non-professional] but try not to reflect too much about the character because it is interesting to see what they give to the character. If we talk too much about what we want to portray, these ideas get in the way of the actual scenes. We do not talk about the mechanics of the characters in a theoretical way. We work in the scene. It is a good thing to do because they [actors] give things that we wouldn’t have thought about, or that are more complex than our expectations.
FV: It is working in the margins of the scene, not with the actual dialogue that is written, but the possibility of this universe. They get to embody a character and they feel like they know what happens before or after a scene. 

 You are shining a light on a difficult subject. Can you talk about your motivation to tell these difficult stories? 

AR: That’s our lives. We live in that reality. Perhaps we are not in the countryside, but we receive all this violence; it surrounds us. When we were younger, we felt this violence was in the margins and in the rural areas or on the border. And little by little it is coming closer. We need to talk about it. It is difficult to take that way from our minds and do something different. We feel with this film that we want to say something about hope which we also need to hear. We needed that especially after Identifying Features, which is a very terrible, dark story. With this film, we wanted to say something brighter to give us hope that this one day will end.
FV: I totally agree. I think art and film and literature and journalism is about raising difficult questions. That is what concerns us and what our lives are about – not what is already answered or resolved. What we don’t know or have not done as a society or are not sure about, is the fuel behind our work. We are lucky we can reflect on things that we feel are important. We don’t have answers, but the questions are the beginning to open a conversation.

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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