Interview – Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, Directors of ‘Sujo’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase

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Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez’s Sujo is the touching odyssey of a Mexican hitman’s orphaned son. The titular boy, whose mother died at birth, is brought up by his recluse of an aunt, who manages to keep Sujo away from his father’s affairs until, inevitably, Sujo is drawn into the drug cartel world. Fleeing to Mexico City, Sujo will find out whether he’ll be able to escape the destiny awaiting all orphans like him.

Sujo made its world premiere in the World Cinematic Dramatic Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and will play again at Göteborg on February 2. Ahead of both premieres, we sat down with Rondero and Valadez to discuss their debut feature.

Projektor: Why did you want to tell Sujo’s story in today’s climate? 

Astrid Rondero: Right now, there’s an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Mexico owing to the drug cartel war. And because of this violence, there are 1.6 million orphans displaced nationwide. Some of those are the sons and the daughters of the war’s victims, but others are those of the perpetrators. That prompted some crucial questions, such as: how can we tell those orphans apart – the “good” and the “bad” ones? Who deserves a bright future? Who does not? And who’s to say?

[The making of] Sujo allowed us to explore these questions. Fernanda and I say that making this movie has been like engaging in a conversation with our previous film, Identifying Features. Back then, we asked ourselves: What can it take for a young man to break free from the cycle of violence?

Was the creation of this story the result of many true accounts, somehow embodied by your protagonist?

Fernanda Valadez: When we were making our previous film, we focused on creating something realistic: we wanted to tell the story of thousands of orphans. With Sujo, however, it’s been a bit different. Of course, we carried out a lot of research work, and Astrid has been reading the chronicles penned by late journalist Javier Valdez [ed. Valdez was murdered by unknown gunmen in 2017, after dedicating his life to investigating organized crime]. 

But I think Sujo came out of this desire to give hope for a better future to an entire generation. We were speaking to a journalist while developing this film, and he told us, “An orphan breaking free from the cycle of cartel violence sounds science fiction to me.” From then on, our goal was to pursue a different fate, and to think about how the circumstances and conditions these kids are in could be changed. 

How did you cast the two actors playing the protagonist?

Rondero: Juan Jesús Varela starred in Identifying Features. We met him when he was 15, and he’s a born actor. He is now pursuing the acting path, and it was an obvious choice for us to cast him. He possessed the knowledge of that environment; he’s from the very same countryside area. So we decided to continue working with him. Sujo as a four-year-old child is played by Kevin Aguilar. Picking him was the result of many auditions we held in that area. We went to kindergartens, looking for kids belonging to that community. He was the best choice. He was really eager to be in this film. It’s been great to cast him and to work together with him on set.

“We’ve been collaborating for fifteen years, mainly as producer and director. We co-wrote and co-edited it, and we know each other quite well.” 

Could you elaborate on the writing process, and tell us why you decided to split the film into four chapters?

Valadez: While writing the first draft, Astrid came up with the idea of portraying several stages of a man’s life, like scenes from a more complex subject – Sujo himself, in this case. So we wanted each episode to feel like a season of this young man’s life, each with its peculiar atmosphere. Meanwhile, we worked on surrounding him with some specific characters that would allow him to become the man he wanted to be. That’s why each episode is named after one of the supporting characters.

Rondero: It’s been hard [writing it] because it’s the biggest movie we’ve made so far. We had to deal with many characters and “heavy” production requirements. But the most difficult part was actually post-production, as we rushed to finish it before the Sundance premiere. We did what we usually do in two months in just a couple of weeks.

Zooming in on post-production, I see you’re both credited as editors together with Susan Korda…

Rondero: It’s our third time working with Susan. We met her at Berlinale some years ago. […] For us, editing is one of the most important stages, and we feel really comfortable in the editing room. It’s good to have companionship during that process because it’s a bit like co-writing. It also helps you take distance from the footage. Susan is our third partner-in-crime. She’s the one with the most distance, which makes her a very good viewer. Thanks to her presence, we feel very calm and creative.

How did you split your tasks on set?

Valadez: That’s a tricky question. We’ve been collaborating for fifteen years, mainly as producer and director. We co-wrote and co-edited it, and we know each other quite well. Astrid usually spoke to the actors, but sometimes when the scenes required the presence of two actors doing two opposite actions, we each would talk to one of them. It was like a wrestling match, so the actors would find themselves “discovering” the scene while shooting. While Astrid worked more with the actors, I focused more on the photography and the lighting. 

The cinematography is quite gloomy, which reflects the hopeless setting of this story. Was it something you envisioned while writing the script or was it a choice shared with your cinematographer, Ximena Amann?

Valadez: It already emerged during writing. We’re already “shooting with words” when working on the script. […] But Ximena suggested we use different lenses for each episode. It wouldn’t be an obvious contrast, but it would give us specific color palettes and textures for each episode. 

During the first part, we used lenses that gave us more dramatic, aggressive flares. During Sujo’s childhood, we used similar lenses but focused on colors such as green, magenta, and brown, making the image softer and less distorted. When Sujo grows up, the image looks sharper, but the flares from the cars or other artificial lights make it more uneven. For the chapter set in Mexico City, we picked a set of lenses that made the image even less distorted, but we aimed to keep some contrast to convey the idea that the character is still finding his true self.

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