By Stephanie Tokasz, March 30, 2021
A discussion of the film, Identifying Features, and its corresponding talkback that took place last weekend.

The Element of the Unknown

Identifying Features Poster

Blog posting written by Stephanie Tokasz, Film, Photography, and Visual Arts ’24, minors in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies and Psychology, FLEFF Intern, Orchard Park, New York.

Most people know the feeling of clicking “Leave Meeting” as soon as the host says that one can do so. However, this is a rare instance at the 24th Annual Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

As the “sobremesa,” also known as the afterparty, of the Identifying Features (Valadez, 2020) talkback came to a close a few minutes later than expected, one of the FLEFF team members had to step in and state the conservation should wrap up so that festivalgoers could begin to prepare for the next talkback that was set to take place later that day.

Identifying Features tells the story of a mother, Magdalena, who sets out on a dangerous expedition to find her son, Rigo, after he disappeared trying to cross the border. During this journey, she crosses paths with Miguel, a young man who has just returned to Mexico after being deported from the United States.

From the beginning of the talkback, insightful conversation was initiated by three panelists, as well as the moderator, Girish Shambu, the editor of Film Quarterly Quorum and a professor of Management at Canisius College.

The conservation was set in motion by the panelist Debra Castillo, the Emerson Hinchliff Chair of Hispanic Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, who declared that the film is “a story about migration. A story about separated families... about the people who are left behind, particularly the mothers.”

Another panelist, Dr. Enrique González-Conty, an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Ithaca College, added to this insight by stating that the film is “a tribute to the mothers looking for their missing children.”

The final panelist, Camilo Malagón, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Ithaca College, mentioned that the film functions less like a road story and more as a detective story.

Although the film is seen as a sort of detective story, there are several audio-visual elements that the panelists pointed out. The one that seemed to stick out to them the most, as well as the literary scholars in the audience, was the element of magical realism, which is known as the natural connection between the real and natural.

The conversation built off of this observation as a series of metaphors seen throughout the story were also discussed. Castillo pointed out the metaphor of the border itself, and how the story is “a condition rather than a location,” since it was not localized in one place.

Shambu also asked about the metaphor of the devil that is prevalent at the end of the film, and during the takeaway section, a student added to the panelists’ earlier discussion by stating that the depiction of the devil makes this mother’s story burn eternally.

During the question and answer section, I had a specific question about the translation of the title Identifying Features to the Spanish language, which reads Sin Señas Particulares, meaning “without identifying features.” Malagón believes it is something about the story that is still yet to be explored.

My own takeaway from this conservation was from Dr. González-Conty’s idea surrounding the lack of context in the film that some spectators pointed out. He believes that those claiming the missing context don’t understand the film because the audience shares the same sense of mystery that Magdalena is feeling. This relates to Malagón’s belief that the film functions as a detective story.

The conservation closed with the discussion of the element of the unknown that is present in the film. There is an element of not knowing the violence endured, not knowing the man’s indigenous language in which he describes the violence, and not knowing entirely what happened to Rigo as well as the others who have disappeared while crossing the border.

This sense of uncertainty adds to the ongoing and active obstacle of crossing the border between the United States and Mexico. The panelists are hopeful that this film will bring about a new perspective that can initiate and continue the conversation about this controversial issue.