In this #itchysilkLIVE we talk to the filmmaker and animator Brenda Lopez-Zepeda. Twenty-four year old Brenda Lopez Zepeda is in fact another student from the Mel Hoppenhiem school of cinema. If you have been following, we featured another student from that creative hub Rui Ting.
Our interest and wish to interview Brenda Lopez Zepeda was sealed when we watched her film ABEO. It details the journey of two latin-american female immigrants as they hope to start their journey to the land of opportunities. While their reasons for attempting to get into America are very different, they share a wish and determination to change their lives for the better.
Using stop animation (ostensibly) Brenda Lopez Zepeda brings their journey to life and challenges us to look at the very politically divisive issue of immigration. Away from the natural bias that might proliferate Western media, Brenda Lopez Zepeda brings another side to that whole immigration rhetoric.
In that side we see the human rather than the ‘immigrant’.
Tell us about your formative years and how those years may have had an impact on your interest in animation/ film as medium?
Growing up, I always liked drawing and colouring, but I never thought I could be a professional artist; in part because in Mexico there’s still a lot of people who think that art is not a real career or that it’s too risky to go into. It’s only once I got to high-school that I realized I liked art way more than any other subject. I needed to be honest and realize what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing the most.
And following on from the previous question, talk to us about the spark that drove you into pursuing animation/film.
After high-school, I got into the visual arts program at Dawson College. I am very grateful for the flexibility of the program; it allowed me to explore a lot of different types of art from painting, sculpting, filmmaking, music, digital media and more. During my time in college, I fell in love with cinema and more specifically with animation: the plasticity and the control that it allowed me to have as a storyteller and an artist was unmatched. When I discovered Concordia’s animation program, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
I decided to make a film that would fight the hateful rhetoric of “us vs them” that grew dramatically after the 2016 American election.
Like Rui you attend Hoppenheim. Tell us the impact this place has had on your journey?
In 2013 I applied to the film animation program in Concordia University and I was rejected. So, I waited a year, I worked on my portfolio, I saved some money, I spent some money and then I reapplied for the fall of 2014. That first rejection was rough but once I got in, I was able to appreciate the program much more. I met the best people, and I had the best teachers. I think that sometimes failing is the best (and the harshest) way to learn.
What makes Hoppenheim special?
In my opinion, what makes the animation program at Concordia so special is the community. The program is very small, and the students tend to be generous, friendly and caring. There isn’t an unhealthy competitive atmosphere. The projects tend to be different either visually or in their storytelling, so people (and the faculty) push each other with constructive criticism. The faculty really cares about their students and they will help them succeed in any way they can. Of course, Concordia isn’t perfect, but it allowed me to become a better artist and a much better person and for those reasons alone I will always treasure my time there.
You wrote the script for ABEO. Where did you decide upon the idea for the animation-how familiar is this story to you and others?
ABEO is Latin for essentially change. The definition of the word fits the story and the characters of my film perfectly. ABEO tells the story of two undocumented immigrant women crossing the Arizona desert to get to the US.
I decided to make a film that would fight the hateful rhetoric of “us vs them” that grew dramatically after the 2016 American election. This rhetoric continues to gain traction in different parts of the world. Here in Quebec, the recently elected political party used anti-immigrant rhetoric in their campaign. So ABEO is fictional film based on the very painful and real experience of many immigrants. My goal and wish is to awaken empathy for a marginalized group and to raise awareness of their situation.
Of course, this current social and political climate has a direct impact on you as a Mexican.
It does. As an immigrant myself, I was very scared to see the worldwide rise of hatred against refugees and immigrants. This project is my direct response and reaction to that. The very first stages of pre-production were lots and lots of research. I consumed a ton of documentaries, films, articles, podcasts, interviews, from a wide variety of sources. I also talked to a few people close to me about their experience as undocumented immigrants. I wanted to make sure I was being respectful and truthful to the experiences of the people I wanted to represent in my film.
I believe that the representation of strong female characters, racialized people and all minorities is extremely important.
How difficult has the whole process been to create this short?
I started working on the script and the first rough thumbnails over a year and a half ago. It’s definitely strange to see how the film become more and more relevant. As the filmmaker of apolitical piece, part of me is glad but the other part of me wishes it wasn’t.
Female unity and strength feature heavily in the film. Discuss that more in terms of the film and the journey the characters take.
I believe that the representation of strong female characters, racialized people and all minorities is extremely important. The story of the film was built around the relationship between the two women. This was a significant driving force of the film. I wanted the audience to see how they help each other out and how they grow to care for each other. It was also important how the characters looked; they have dark skin, and different body types and age simply because these are the characters I craved to see on screen for a long time. As a woman, an immigrant and a queer artist, I’m excited to see more representations of minorities everywhere.
Their journey starts when they jump off the train-why?
There was a big part of the script that got cut which gives that context. In the first draft of the story, Nadia and Lupe are part of a larger group of migrants being guided by “coyotes” on the train. Coyotes are people who take migrants’ money and offer “protection” on their journey. Sometimes they will abuse their power. Often, they are affiliated with gangs or human trafficking. Nadia is in danger of being raped and abused by the coyotes and that’s why Lupe grabs her, and they jump off the train to continue the journey on their own.
Migrants women have an extra layer of danger to deal with when attempting to cross the US border. Approximately 1 out of 3 will experience sexual violence. However, tackling this subject could’ve added at least another 2 to 3 minutes to the film and unfortunately it wasn’t feasible in the amount of time I had so I decided to leave the train scene a little ambiguous.
In Mexico, LGBT+ rights are more progressive than people would think
Nadia’s sexuality drives her journey. How typical is that story as a driving force to leave?
When creating the character of Nadia, I imagined her living in a small town in Mexico. Her story borrows from my own experience coming out as queer and not being fully accepted, being torn between religious beliefs in my community, the values I was raised with and my own sexuality.
In Mexico, LGBT+ rights are more progressive than people would think especially when associating Latinx countries with the macho culture that is still very widespread. Same-sex marriage is technically legal nationwide and transgender people can change their legal name and gender in three states. Although there has been a lot of progress, Mexican society continues to be very conservative in big part because of the catholic church. The LGBT+ community is more accepted in big cities, but violence and persecution can be found in smaller towns and rural areas.
Most migrant and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mexico-US border are from central America and the situation for the LGBT+ community is much worse there. Same-sex marriage is not legal, same-sex couples cannot adopt and unions aren’t recognized in most countries. El Salvador and Honduras are amongst the countries with the highest homicide rates and LGBT+ people are particularly vulnerable to gang violence.
The death of Nadia is a powerful conclusion. Why did you decide on such a tragic end?
The death of a character was part of the script from the beginning. I wanted to awaken empathy for both characters. By killing one of them I emphasize the tragedy and injustice of the real people this story is based on.
I debated for a while whether I wanted to kill Lupe (the older mother going back for her child) or Nadia (the queer teenager). I decided on the latter. Having the younger character murdered would inevitably feel more tragic. What makes the situation worse is that Nadia’s death is random, the American vigilantes could have shot either of them. On the other hand, Lupe’s fate is also tragic. She witnesses the sudden murder of Nadia, a young woman she grew to love. She must live with that pain and the uncertainty for her future and the future of her family.
There’s a painful irony as well; these two women escape from “coyotes”, jump off a train and cross a dessert to find safety. But one of them gets shot on American soil by people who feel threatened because of misinformation and an irrational hatred.
I think Lupe’s story has become the most relevant because of the rampant number of deportations and family separations enforced by the Trump administration
The media of course have a part to play in that mis-information.
There isn’t enough media coverage about migrants and asylum seekers losing their lives while attempting to cross the border. In 2017 alone, there was an estimate of 300 deaths. This number is the lowest the last few years because undocumented immigration from Latin-American countries has diminished since 2007. There is a lot of misinformation flying around trying to keep communities divided. People think immigrants are dangerous when in fact they are the ones in danger most of the time.
The other thing the media doesn’t emphasize enough is the fact that asking for refuge is completely legal in the US. If someone is fleeing violence they have the right to ask for asylum. Right now, I keep thinking about the caravan of migrants heading to the USA and it makes me very nervous because I see terms like “invasion”, “violent” and “dangerous” flying around.
And Lupe’s story was one of a mother trying to return to her son. In this Donald Trump period the story has pertinence. Can you discuss this a bit more in terms of the film?
Lupe’s character was inspired by my own mother. We never had to go through what the characters in the film go through in terms of danger but the reality and challenges of being an immigrant are very universal. My mother brought me to Canada when I was 11, she didn’t speak the language. She didn’t have any savings and left her family behind because she wanted me to have more opportunities. That’s what most immigrants are asking for; safety, equal opportunity and a chance to be contributing members of a new society.
I think Lupe’s story has become the most relevant because of the rampant number of deportations and family separations enforced by the Trump administration. These policies were around before Trump, but he is the first one enforcing it in a way that has never been seen before. Again, this comes back to the fake narrative that the Trump administration keeps pushing about immigrants being a threat to the US.
You voiced one of the characters why did you decide to take a role in the film?
Voicing one of the characters was never part of the initial plan. It was a happy accident. I had to do a scratch recording to show my work in progress to my supervisor and classmates. I quickly recorded one with the help of my mom one night. She voiced Lupe and I voiced Nadia. Once I presented this version, I got really good feedback about the natural chemistry my mom and I had.
So, I decided to follow my class’s suggestion and I re-recorded a final version with my mom as Lupe and myself as Nadia. Then, the project became even more personal to me because I was constantly listening to my mother’s voice and my own voice during the rest of the production of the film; and the connection I had with both characters grew even stronger.
Why did you employ a mix of animation techniques?
The mix of animation techniques is partly a practical decision and partly a storytelling device. My chosen technique was originally stop motion. The sand animation and 2D digital techniques were added later to help with the storytelling and the background stories of each character as well as the tragic ending of the film. I wanted to experiment with different techniques because I think they work well to communicate different ideas. For example, each character gets to tell their backstory with a different animation technique; for Nadia it is sand animation and for Lupe it is 2D digital animation.
Just discuss the technical aspects of creating the animation time spent, technical challenges,
The challenges of the film are I think too many to name. I think the biggest one was the space I used to make the stop motion animation. I ended up doing the sand animation and the stop motion animation in my room erasing any semblance of boundaries between my work and my personal life. After spending days on end in a small dark room moving puppets you start to feel strange very fast. But having that same place be where you sleep is especially exhausting. My internal clock was out of whack. My bed was sandy for months.
I was very lucky to collaborate with wonderful people who helped me with post-production like my talented friend and animator Ana Eskildsen.I also had amazing collaborators like my sound designer Nick Lavigne and my talented musician and film scorer Adrian Gutierrez.
Anything you want to add?
Lastly, if you can, please consider donating to non-profit organizations and charities that support marginalized groups. The ones that come to mind right now are: The Trevor project, Border Angels, Young Center for Immigrant children’s rights and Families for freedom.