In the first scene of Xquip' Guie'dani (Guie'dani's Navel), the title character (played by Sótera Cruz, a stunning newcomer whom director Xavi Sala found after two years of searching for the right actress), picks up a handful of dirt and places it in a plastic bag: a little piece of home to take with her as she and her mother head to Mexico City, where her mother has taken a job as a live-in maid with a wealthy family. Later in the movie, Guie'dani tells a friend that she knows she'll have to return someday, because her navel is buried there. In her Oaxacan village, it's tradition to bury a baby's umbilical cord in the dirt.
The film is showing at the Tucson Cine Mexico film festival, which continues through Sunday, March 31. Sala has made several short films before, but he knew when he came up with the concept for this one that it would make a good candidate for his first feature film.
"I had very clear that my idea was for a feature film, not a short film," said Sala, a nationalized Mexican who was born in Alacant in the Catalan Countries. "I needed many minutes to tell the emotions I wanted."
The landlords in the story, who own the home where Guie'dani's mother takes a job, are like the well-meaning antagonists you see in real life: men who tell women they should smile more often, or people who suggest overly simplistic cures, like "looking on the bright side" for nuanced mental health quandaries. They tell Guie'dani and her mother to help themselves to the food in the kitchen, so long as they use the separate set of silverware the family set aside for them. They hire a tutor to help Guie'dani improve her Spanish because they suggest it would be better if she and her mother stop speaking to one another in their native language.
Sala believes language is the most important characteristic of identity, and he's been fascinated and impressed by the Zapotec people and their struggle to maintain their culture since he first encountered them a decade ago. Since the Catalan Countries, where Sala is from originally, are fighting for their independence, he felt a connection to the Zapotec too.
"Despite the social, economic and historical differences between the original peoples in Mexico and Catalan Countries, there is a common sense of resistance: of preserving a language and a culture against those who want to annihilate them," he says. "In the case of Guie'dani's Navel, there are phrases taken literally from my childhood. The aggression against the Catalan identity still endures, like the Zapotec."
Guie'dani and her mother have completely different responses to the world of Mexico City that takes them in and tries to spit them back out: While her mother urges Guie'dani to behave, to please try not to upset the landlords by being overly morose, to study harder for her tutor, Guie'dani is defiant: She doesn't want to study, she resents the way the two teenagers in the house complain about her mother's cooking, and she would rather hang out with her friend Claudia, the daughter of another live-in maid down the street, than help her mother with the housework.
It's difficult enough to exist in that age between childhood and adolescence, not allowed to enjoy the privileges of an adult, but not allowed to enjoy the carefree nature of childhood either. Guie'dani is facing them all within a wider framework.
The feminist theorist bell hooks is famous for saying that sexism, classism and racism are inextricably linked, and eradicating one must mean eradicating all of them. So, it only makes sense that gender should play such a large part in this film. From their landlord telling Guie'dani's mother she would look better if she cut her hair to the sexual tension that weaves its way into Guie'dani's friendship with Claudia as it does in many preteen friendships to the way Guie'dani's mother is grappling with the illness of her own mother, this is, in many ways, a film about women and their experiences. Even the title of the movie is about motherhood and birth.
Sala says the themes of finding your identity and facing rejection have been prevalent in his own life, but a woman's perspective (which is found in many of his short films as well) came from a less predictable place.
"The feminine universe has interested me since I was a child," he says. "I come to it naturally and instinctively, unintentionally. I have six brothers and two sisters, one of them my twin sister. Over the years, I believe that the excess of men in the family enhanced my feminine sensibility. To this is added the influence of my mother—she was a teacher, now retired—from whom I inherited my passion for art."