Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, the directors and subjects of the playful and poetic Hummingbirds, love to sing and dance, take selfies and act silly. It would be easy at a glance to dismiss their mischief as youthful self-righteousness. It’s youthful self-righteousness to be sure, but there’s something serious, lively and compelling about the levity. Silvia and Beba are a powerful writer and gifted musician respectively. They were 18 and 21 when they started making the film, and it captures them in that peculiar in-between state on the brink of full adulthood. They’re also intimately acquainted with another go-between, one that’s not so ephemeral: As Mexican immigrants in Laredo, a town on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, they live in a veritable frontier country.
Mostly shot in the summer of 2019, Hummingbirds, which received a jury award at its Berlin premiere and made its North American bow at True/False, is the product of what the filmmakers call a “collaborative student model of filmmaking.” Inspired by films like the Polish documentary All these sleepless nightsleaders were mentored by creative professionals, 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 double self-portrait has the sparkle of summer fun and the bright energy of creative focus for besties who are smart and incredibly likeable. They are people who had to grow up quickly, aware from an early age of their families’ financial problems and, above all, of their concerns about immigration policy.
It comes down to
Politically fed and summery.
Drivers: Silvia Del Carmen Castaños, Estefanía “Beba” Contreras
1 hour 17 minutes
Beba waits for her papers and manages expectations, hoping for residency status, but daring to dream of citizenship. An elementary part of her story is a memory she carries with her that is not directly hers, but something that has been described to her: crossing the border on her mother’s shoulders. Both Beba and Silvia remember being deported as children, and while the full scope of their biographies has never been made crystal clear, details emerge, in bits and pieces, about families divided across the U.S.-Mexico border and childhoods cut short by having to care for younger siblings. When they sneak into a luxurious house under construction with other friends, there is something sweet and serious behind the wisdom in the way they imagine themselves inhabiting such a place.
There is a bold, candid vulnerability in the way they channel their experiences into art – Silvia’s poems, Beba’s songs and her sister’s dancing – as well as activism. On the latter, their concerns are twofold: callous treatment of those immigrating to the United States from southern neighbors, and declining access to safe and legal reproductive health care, including abortion.
Silvia gives a presentation on the latter issue and proves an eloquent advocate in a formal setting. That’s something of an evolution from a sequence earlier in the document when she, Beba, and their friend Jeffrey set out on a nighttime mission to change the message of an anti-abortion sign. Dressed up for their adventure in vandalism, they perform for the cameras, but they also perform something of a higher level. Their bandanas may be funny ways to mask their identities, but Beba and Silvia wear shirts that announce “Tuve an abortion(“I had an abortion”), and Jeffrey’s gauzy femme outfit announces an aspect of his identity without apology.
Jeffrey’s birthday celebration in a bowling alley with Beba and Silvia is a particularly beautiful part of the film. The way these three fake parental admonitions are spot-on satire and full of affection. In another way, that’s also the hyper-silly mode that Beba and Silvia get into when they accompany Beba’s mom to a bingo game she takes very seriously.
The spark and embrace of love and acceptance is the basis of the film. There’s nothing soft or mushy about it. The escapades involving trespassing, protest, street food and nightlife documented by Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía Contreras are fleeting moments, ephemeral but life-forming. They are captive fireflies that, like the tattoo Beba does for Silvia, last a long time.
Production companies: Extra Terrestrial in association with Ford Foundation, JustFilms, Field of Vision, Cowboy Bear Ninja
Directed by: 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-Falco, 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: Alien Movies
In English and Spanish
1 hour 17 minutes