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Belgian-Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai’s poetic debut feature was based on stories of families who have lost loved ones to drug trafficking. Photo: Zeitgeist Films in Association with Kino Lorber.
Belgian-Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai’s poetic debut feature was based on stories of families who have lost loved ones to drug trafficking. Photo: Zeitgeist Films in Association with Kino Lorber.

Mexico’s deepest wound

Inspired by the testimonies of the victims of organized crime, the Mexican film 'La Civil' premieres in U.S. theaters.

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Laura’s head had a price: 150,000 Mexican pesos (about $7,800). Cielo, her mother, is willing to do the impossible to raise the money and have her daughter back in her arms as soon as possible.

Bill after bill, in a nameless and ownerless land, in the complicity of the darkness and the moon, Cielo pays the ransom to a reckless teenager, with the face of a child and a threatening voice, who today is on the side of the bad guys — a gang of drug traffickers, the same gang that took away her daughter’s smile... forever.

This is the story showcased by Belgian-Romanian filmmaker Teodora Ana Mihai in her debut feature film La Civil. Inspired by the life of Miriam Rodríguez Martínez, a woman whose daughter Karen was kidnapped and murdered by a drug cartel in Tamaulipas in 2012, Teodora guided her production based on the testimony of Miriam herself, whom she met personally during a trip to Mexico.

As she recounted to AL DÍA from Belgium: “I wanted to do a project about children and what it’s like to grow up on the border near the United States. When parents must go to work in other countries, they send money home, and children are practically raising themselves. I had that project in my head, and I was seeing that reality when my friends told me that I had to return home before 7 p.m. because my safety could not be guaranteed.”

As the filmmaker said: “That was a blow and I said I would like to investigate what it’s like to grow up in an environment where you leave in the morning, and you don’t know if you’re going to be back at night. That’s why I promised myself to go back to Mexico and investigate, and that’s how I met Miriam."

Of that meeting, she recalled: “One of the first things she said to me was: ‘When I open my eyes every morning I think: do I want to kill or die?’ These are words I don’t hear every day, but what was like a slap in the face was the violence of her words and her physicality as a mother, housewife, lady, and I wanted to understand how a mother can reach such a point.”

Taking justice into her own hands

Driven by desperation, a thirst for revenge and disenchantment with the inaction of the authorities, Cielo (played by actress Arcelia Ramírez) did the impossible to find those responsible for her daughter’s disappearance. She meticulously investigated on her own, became a human rights activist, a leader for mothers in the same situation and did not stop until she saw every single criminal behind bars. Unfortunately, no effort brought her daughter back alive, whom she found buried in a mass grave in 2014.

Mihai’s feature debut in La Civil is a far cry from the real life that dictated a tragic end for Miriam — bullets from the cartels’ vendetta silenced her cry, but not her legacy.

“We wanted to make a fiction out of her agreement to protect her without taking risks. She knew there was that risk. A wait that never comes and when it came it was on a day as symbolic as Mother’s Day in Mexico, May 10th, 2017. It was a shock and there the pressure to tell the story was greater, her voice was no longer there, and the story needed to come out”, added the director.

A U.S. premiere

The film was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, where it won the Courage Award in the Un Certain Regard section. It recently premiered at the Film Forum in New York and will also screen in Ohio, San Diego, Los Angeles, North Carolina and Houston, between March and April of this year.

“Miriam wanted to open an international debate, and I am proud that it has become a reality. I am not political or militant and that was my small contribution. Now, the viewer could do their part,” Mihai said.

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