In order to heal her grieving mother, a devout 9 year old girl pushes her faith to its limit in hopes of divine intervention.
Written & Directed by Cris Gris
Running time: 19 minutes
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This film was made possible through the assistance of a grant from the Spike Lee Film Production Fund and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fellows Fund.
SELECTEDAWARDS: Wasserman King Screenwriting Award (New York, 2019) National Board of Review Grant Winner (New York, 2019) Female Film Force 1st Place Honoree, 18th Ivy Film Festival (Providence, RI, USA 2019) Best Script, Brooklyn Women Film Festival (Brooklyn, NY 2019) Special Jury Award, Beirut Women International Film Festival (Beirut, Lebanon 2019)
ABOUT THE FILM:
In the face of devastating loss and grief, the human mind often turns to magical thinking to make sense of the unfathomable. In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “San Miguel,” a devout young girl desperately prays at the feet of an invisible God to sooth the pain of her despondent mother. When divine intervention doesn’t come fast enough, she must think of alternate, earth side methods to pull her family out of the darkness of despair.
Filmed in writer and director Cris Gris’ hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, the beauty of “San Miguel” lies not only in the natural performances of its actors but the true-to-life portrayal of its location. Everything from the pious dedication of Monterrey’s people, to its sky high fireworks displays builds on the idea that their community holds a direct line to a higher power, where the miracle of his mercy is only a prayer away.
“San Miguel” was Gris’ 2019 thesis film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, for which she received a student grant from the National Board of Review. How did she create such an accomplished piece even before graduating from school? Read on for excerpts from our interview with her and cinematographer Sheldon Chau.
Gris: “When I was pretty young, I had a panic attack at the cinema. A film that I had watched made me realize we were living in the middle of this vast universe and I wasn’t able to grasp the idea. Growing up Catholic, I thought we died and went to heaven. But after realizing we were part of this big universe, my whole toolbox of beliefs/answers shattered. It was hard to communicate with adults about this. I would tell them my thoughts and they would always give me the same answers.
With “San Miguel,” I was mainly interested in exploring the hardships many children face when trying to make their voice heard or understood, especially with difficult questions or problems in life. In this case, I chose a devout Catholic family, which is how I was raised. San Miguel paints a story of womanhood, lineage, and the power of religion in a devout family.”
On challenges faced:
Gris:“One of the things I remember most is how hard it was to get the last shot of the film. It took a while to get our large group of cast and crew coordinated. We did at least 3 hours of rehearsing/blocking every single thing; fireworks, actors, props, extras, camera, lighting, etc. We did this without taking into account the set dressing for that particular take. The last shot was filmed in a not-so-safe neighborhood. Our producers were worried we were calling too much attention with fireworks, plus it was a little late at night.
Before the second take, people from the neighborhood started to come out of their houses to check out what was happening. So one of the producers, who happens to be my sister, Carolina Tamez, came to me before the third take and she said, very seriously, “This is your last take”. I looked at Sheldon Chau, the DP, and was like, “Dude… we have to get it…” The other two takes hadn’t worked. Thankfully, we got it in that third take, and that’s the shot you see there.”
On casting and directing Melissa Peña Rodriguez:
Gris:“Melissa’s audition wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But whenever I audition anybody I make time so I can also chat with them. When we were chatting, I thought “She is perfect for the role, she is Ana”. My casting director didn’t understand, but I had to go with my gut feeling.
I remember on the audition she said to me “I can’t cry on set, just so you know” I was like “No problem.” In the church scene, I remember we talked about the situation — like how much her character did not want to steal money, this is not who she is but she didn’t have any other option. Ana would have to be a person that she didn’t want to be. And somehow, she was teary for the entire scene, even after multiple takes and different angles. She was able to sustain that level of emotional vulnerability when she committed to it even when she had told me before the shoot that she couldn’t cry on camera. I was so proud of her. It’s not easy to keep that kind of energy for a whole scene. Melissa says that was the hardest scene for her.”
On cinematographic approach:
Chau:“We developed our camera language entirely based on the lead character’s emotions. We’re almost always on Ana’s POV; our camerawork gets more erratic as she does, to mimic her state of mind. We chose handheld because it is naturally more organic, but also because it brings us closer to the world and it places us right next to her. Many homes in the area are lit by minimal bare bulbs and single bulbs, and the color scheme is on the warmer side to reflect that. We also used green tones to contrast that warmth, since many of the lights in stores and shops of Monterrey are illuminated by florescent lights.”
On the importance of location:
Gris:“We filmed in Monterrey, Mexico. The house is located on a beautiful place called La Huasteca, surrounded by big mountains. And the rest of the locations are in downtown Monterrey; Mercado Juarez, Iglesia Perpetuo Socorro, etc.
I grew up in this city, and I grew up around the traditions portrayed in the film: churches, saints, grandmas, faith, singing, family hierarchy, Christmas, magic realism, fireworks, etc. The universe I created came naturally as I started writing about a little girl in Monterrey.”