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'Huesera' director on dismantling traditional ideas of motherhood

Michelle Garza Cervera's feature directorial debut, arriving on Shudder this week, takes a feminist lens to a subgenre historically dominated by men.
Credit: Shudder / Nur Rubio Sherwell

TEXAS, USA — “Huesera: The Bone Woman,” a fitfully terrifying and skillfully sinister movie releasing on Shudder this week, carves a moody path through the grown-over terrain of cinema’s pregnant-and-paranoid subgenre. 

Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” might still be the best movie of its kind thanks to the pure wandering-through-a-nightmare virtuosity of its filmmaking. But continuously evolving – and increasingly global – conversations about motherhood and women's autonomy have ensured that thematic ground remains fertile, to say nothing of the entirely new lens through which to see these stories as female filmmakers are given more opportunities to tell them.

Among those filmmakers is Michelle Garza Cervera, whose "Huesera" marks the latest in a line of hard-hitting genre works from younger Mexican directors. (Others include Issa López for "Tigers Are Not Afraid" and Fernando Valadez for "Identifying Features.") Informed by her memories of a family driven by tradition, Cervera's feature debut puts horror tropes into sharp relief to tell the story of Valeria, a young expecting woman haunted by paths not taken and paths her gender has rooted her to. 

Speaking with KENS 5 film critic David Lynch from Austin during Fantastic Fest last fall, Cervera discussed grappling with identity through film, discovering her family's story, and the influences both personal and folkloric behind "Huesera."

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

KENS 5: I thought la huesera was a legend that you created for the film, though it turns out that wasn't the case. I found that she was also often referred to as la loba, the wolf woman. When did you learn about her, and what made you want to craft a story about this particular legend?

Michelle Garza Cervera: I was recommended this book, "Women Who Run with the Wolves," around the time I lost my mother. I was going through that mourning process and a friend recommended that book to me. Many of my friends who are into feminism like that book, it's very well known, at least in Latin America. And the section of la huesera that analyzes that tall tale really stuck with me; this idea of finding pieces of yourself, the deepest ones that are literally bonds, and then putting together this new entity and going through a ritual to set it free. 

It's very symbolic in many ways of finding truths, these kinds of things that sometimes we don't want to look at. I started working with my cowriter in 2017, and the tale we completely changes because... the heart is the most important (thing about it), finding pieces of yourself through a difficult process.

This movie feels like it was very inspired by personal experience, and it sounds like that's at least partially the case. Could you tell me more about where you were in your own life, as a filmmaker and as a Latina, when you started writing "Huesera"?

I had a strong process with losing my mom and understanding her identity separate from me. It's tough because I had those kinds of conversations realizing she had a life before that, which is very basic but sometimes we don't stop to think about. I was also reaching my 30s, being scared about it. And even though I'm not Catholic, I grew up Catholic and in most of the country we have a cultural, very in-our-blood idea or concept of what a woman is supposed to do or be in life. 

Even now that I have done a film about it, I still sometimes carry guilt or fears that are very deeply rooted. And back then I also had a figure of one of my grandmothers; she was a woman that I identified as an evil person because she left my father when he was a baby. Around this time, I started asking those uncomfortable questions of my father and my family about this woman. And it's crazy what happens when you have access to a story. She got really complex, (my) evil concept of her disappeared. I identified with her and I said, "That's the power of stories. That's my work. I need to tell a story about these kinds of characters."

To what extent did you set out to make a movie that's also about grappling with your own identity?

This is just how our lives are, right? The way I have to depict a family relationship is the way we grew up with them. So it's just my familiarity. My cowriter and myself, we said we need to be loyal in portraying how our family dynamics are. They tend to be very specific from our countries, but that's where we are from. 

Of course, we have roots and we have very similar cultural situations. For example, this idea of women having to follow this exact path. It sounds very basic, but being a little bit doubtful about it seems radical and everybody gets scared in your family, like, "Oh my God, she's lost, she's gonna have a miserable life." Even though you can try to keep yourself strong, they touch you because they're the people you love and they're really thinking that you're going to hell or that you're going to end up dying alone. 

I was very clear that for my first feature I wanted to use many parts of the life I know, of my personal life, and (determining) which of these tools would help me construct this narrative path that I needed to use for Valeria. So if I had a family of this type that plays into the conflict of motherhood and sacred idea of motherhood that we have in Mexico and countries like ours, it was useful for the story. In the case of punk or carpentry, I tried to bring many of the things that I'm familiar with so I could control the truthful portrayal, at least from my perspective. 

Credit: Shudder

The sound design of "Huesera" gave me nightmares. When did you decide that you wanted to have such a forceful sound of this bone-crunching and cracking that returns throughout in different ways?

That's thanks to rewrites. I'm a big believer in rewriting, and we got to the point of understanding how powerful it could be just (having) the sound and image of a breaking bone. These things that can be very cinematic because it's literal and you can touch it or you can see it, you can feel it. It affects us in a physical way when we see it or when we hear it. We thought, "That's a perfect representation of the emotions that Valeria or a woman can go through when going through these processes that are very hard to speak about on a daily basis." 

So we thought, OK, that's perfect. We have a very easy tool to use throughout her process. It gave an identity to the film that I'm very happy people are embracing. I love when that happens in your film, like, "Oh my God, it worked out." Like the way you see a knife in an eye, these kinds of classic objects or how you can portray a film with one image. We really pushed to embraced that with "Huesera."

Natalia Solian has a really tough assignment in this lead role. She has to project one thing on the outside while showing just enough of her anxieties to the audience, especially in the early scenes. What made her right for this role and how did you find her? 

Natalia is amazing. The first time you see her, she just has something very magnetic. With very little facial expression, she says a lot. That's the most cinematic thing you can find in an actor. 

She's big in theater in Mexico. I remember going outside and googling her immediately, because she just has something that to me is very instinctual. When I got her casting tape, it was immediate... I could see Valeria there. Natalia is the kind of actor that really works from personal experiences; she's very generous about it. She's a mother, and she went through a process that she was very generous to share—putting all the heart of that thing she needed to work in from her own life for the character, which became very cathartic in many ways.

"Huesera" belongs to this long history of psychological thrillers about young women and expecting mothers who are caught up in waking nightmares. I think when people think about the biggest movies in that subgenre, they think of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Mulholland Drive" and Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!" Most are directed by men, even though they're centered around women. Has your experience making "Huesera" given you a new perspective about who gets to tell these kinds of stories?

It's funny you mentioned it, I was for a long time into reading criticism and essays about the psychologic implications of films. I did study for a while these  texts regarding horror films, so I do believe those films have an amazing craft that I really admire. But I do think, politically, they say radically different things that women would say about this theme. These are the masters of film, but they are speaking from the other perspective. There's no way that we're going to make a film the same way—never. 

I worked from a very personal place and from how many of the women involved in the film felt or experienced in their lives. I was loyal to that. The film says something that is very different... from "Aliens," for example. I love "Aliens," but there's this thing that many films that speak about motherhood have that basically says it doesn't matter what kind of woman you are, if you're the toughest woman or if you're living a horrible experience, you're always gonna have an innate, natural maternal instinct. I really wanted to challenge that, because honestly many, many women don't feel that. I think it's a social construction.

Have you had the chance to screen "Huesera" in Mexico, whether at a festival or with family? 

No, actually we're about to premiere in Morelia, in the Mexican competition, which we're very excited about. It's like the biggest festival in Mexico, and it's historical in the sense that it's the first time when, of the selection of 10 films, there's eight women directors. That has never happened before. So we feel like we're in a good moment for Mexican film, and how to portray it. I did show it to my father, which was very strong for me because it took me a long time to make that decision. He really liked it, but it was hard. I still have that anxiety with what the rest of my family (will think).

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