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Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, the directors and subjects of the playful and poetic Hummingbirds, like to sing and dance, take selfies and goof around. It would be easy, at quick glance, to dismiss their mischief as youthful self-absorption. It’s youthful self-absorption, to be sure, but something serious, vibrant and compelling courses through the levity. Silvia and Beba are, respectively, a powerful writer and a gifted musician. They were 18 and 21 when they began making the film, and it catches them in that singular in-between state on the edge of full-fledged adulthood. They’re also intimately acquainted with another in-between, one that’s not as ephemeral: As Mexican immigrants in Laredo, a city on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, they live in an actual borderland.
Shot mostly in the summer of 2019, Hummingbirds, which received a jury award upon its Berlin premiere and took its North American bow at True/False, is the product of what the filmmakers call a “collaborative apprenticeship model of filmmaking.” Drawing inspiration from such films as the Polish documentary All These Sleepless Nights, the helmers were mentored by creative pros including co-directors (Jillian Schlesinger, Miguel Drake-McLaughlin, Ana Rodríguez-Falcó, Diane Ng) and an editor (Isidore Bethel, whose credits include What We Leave Behind). The resulting dual self-portrait has the sheen of summertime fun and the bright energy of creative focus for besties who are smart and terrifically likable. They’re people who had to grow up fast, aware from an early age of their families’ financial strains and, especially, their anxieties over immigration policy.
1 hour 17 minutes
Beba is awaiting her papers and managing expectations, hoping for resident status but not daring to dream of citizenship. An elemental part of her story is a memory she carries that isn’t directly her own but something that’s been described to her: crossing the border on her mother’s shoulders. Both Beba and Silvia do recall being deported as kids, and though the full sweep of their biographies is never made crystal-clear, details emerge, in conversational bits and pieces, about families divided across the U.S.-Mexico border and childhoods cut short by the need to take care of younger siblings. When they sneak, with other friends, into a luxury house under construction, there’s something sweet and earnest, beneath the wiseassery, in the way they imagine themselves inhabiting such a place.
There’s a daring, openhearted vulnerability in the way they channel their experiences into art — Silvia’s poems, Beba’s songs and her sister’s dancing — and also into activism. On the latter front, their concerns are twofold: callous treatment of those immigrating to the States from southern neighbors, and dwindling access to safe and legal reproductive health care, including abortion.
Delivering a presentation on the latter issue, Silvia proves an eloquent advocate in a formal setting. That’s something of an evolution from a sequence earlier in the doc when she, Beba and their friend Jeffrey set out on a nighttime mission to change the message of an anti-abortion sign. In dress-up for their adventure in vandalism , they’re performing for the cameras, but also performing something on a higher order. Their bandannas might be jokey ways of masking their identities, but Beba and Silvia wear shirts that announce “Tuve un aborto” (“I had an abortion”), and Jeffrey’s gauzy femme get-up announces an aspect of his identity without apology.
Jeffrey’s birthday celebration in a bowling alley with Beba and Silvia is an especially lovely section of the film. The way these three mock parental admonitions is spot-on satire, and alive with affection. In a different way, so is the hyper-silly mode that takes hold of Beba and Silvia when they accompany Beba’s mother to a bingo game that she takes very seriously.
The spark and embrace of love and acceptance is the root of the film. There’s nothing soft or mushy about it. The escapades involving trespassing, protest, street food and nightlife that Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía Contreras document are fleeting yet life-shaping moments. They’re captured fireflies that, like the tattoo Beba does for Silvia, will last.
Directors: Silvia Del Carmen Castaños, Estefanía “Beba” Contreras
Co-directors: Jillian Schlesinger, Miguel Drake-McLaughlin, Ana Rodríguez-Falcó, Diane Ng
Producers: Jillian Schlesinger, Miguel Drake-McLaughlin, Ana Rodríguez-Falcó, Diane Ng, Leslie Benavides, Rivkah Beth Medow
Executive producers: Rivkah Beth Medow Jen Rainin, Robina Riccitiello, Gill Holland
Director of photography: Miguel Drake-McLaughlin
Co-director of photography: Diane Ng
Editors: Isidore Bethel, Jillian Schlesinger
Music: Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, Elijah Cruz, Brendan Hoy
Title animations: Yensey Desirée Murillo
Sales: Extra Terrestrial Films
In English and Spanish
1 hour 17 minutes
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