Jessica Mendez Siqueiros journeyed to LA to pursue an acting career. Witnessing a shocking lack of Latino people in the industry, she decided instead to take up filmmaking in a bid to highlight and tackle this problem. The result is Pozole, a short film about family made from a predominantly Latino and female cast and crew, created with the help of a grant from WeTransfer in collaboration with Seed&Spark’s 100 Days of Diversity project in 2018.
We sent photographer Megan Miller to document Jessica on set as she directed her brilliant short, Pozole.
Like some of the best stories, Pozole begins with a death. A death in the family. It’s an awkward death, in that it’s one you can’t help stifling a giggle at, despite the deceased in question being an old woman – birthday hat still very much on – shuffling off this mortal coil at a garden party in front of her friends and family.
It’s not the death that’s humorous per se, it’s more the relatives. Craning over the still-warm body of the deceased grandmother they look to the teenage granddaughter with accusatory stares, her mother’s glare burning brightest. “You told her you don’t eat meat!” she utters in horror to her guilt-stricken, millennial daughter.
And so, with a neat punchline to a morbid joke and some Spanish guitar lapping over the hills of Tuscon, AZ, we are welcomed into Pozole: Jessica Mendez Siqueiros’ multi-award-winning dark comedy short, part-funded by WeTransfer. There’s a lot of interesting aspects of this film. The first is that its maker did not go to film school. Jessica has had experience in the industry, but mostly by way of being the other side of the camera. After a stint of acting in Hollywood and working on some shorts, she took a long look at the films and filmmakers surrounding her and was angered at the way Latino and Mexican families were often portrayed in movies in a clichéd, presumptuous way and the lack of filmmakers of color working behind the scenes. “I was really frustrated with being in LA but not being Latino enough to be in films that I related to, so I wrote [Pozole] out of frustration, initially to act in,” Jessica explains. “Then it became this whole crazy thing that’s changed my life.”
“For me, it was looking around and being like: ‘where are the stories that I want to be a part of?’ When you’re first getting started as an actor so much of what comes your way is so overtly misogynistic. I wouldn’t get cast because I don’t fit into a specific box of how women are supposed to look,” Jessica recalls. “As an actor you’re so powerless to show people what you’re talking about that I felt like the only way I could change anything was to write and direct.”
Another frustration came from the lack of women Jessica was seeing working in front of and behind the camera, so Jessica teamed up with her now-DP Lara Aqel who she met when working on a short alongside a very male-dominated crew. “She jumped into the trenches with me,” says Jessica. “She's also a Middle Eastern woman and I think we have a lot in common. She's been here since she was very young and we have a lot of family dynamic similarities. We understand being children of people from a different ethnic background and the complexities of that. She’s so story driven and so respectful.” It was Lara who provided Jessica with the tools and information she needed to start making her own films, and they have since made four together.
The seedling of Pozole was Jessica’s great-grandmother passing away five days after her 100th birthday. She was a beloved member of the family and a strong matriarch. “She would tell you everything you were doing wrong in your life and was very very proudly Mexican,” says Jessica. “My dad always said that she was proof that only the good die young.”
Inspired by her family’s robust, positive emotional reaction to the loss of such a stalwart of a blood relative, the idea for Pozole began to percolate. “My family has been through such incredible hardship and grew up very impoverished and have dealt with things that are more tragic than you can even put in a film, and at the end of the day everyone is positive, everybody laughs about things,” says Jessica. “If anything the avoidance is the bigger issue than the sad, morose, woe is me stories that we see from Mexican and Mexican American families in film. For me it’s kind of tragically funny, this sense of losing your matriarch and what that does to a family.”
It is that image, or scenario, that we are welcomed into at the start of Pozole: A film that Jessica could only create five years after her great grandmother passed away, once her family had dealt with their loss. It has become something of a paean to the woman they lost, and represented deeper themes about their history. “Once that idea came up it was like, ‘oh yeah, this perfectly deals with all of the things I have struggled with in my family but also celebrates this woman who was really complex in our family dynamic.’”
Jessica went to them and explained how she wanted to honor their side of the family by being public about being Mexican American. “That gave a really great way into the conversation about celebrating our family and what I was going into, so by the time the film came out – and because the film is doing so well – they feel really honored,” says Jessica. “That’s been the best thing to come out of this. It’s really opened up my relationship with my family and partly because I do it with comedy; it’s not, ‘oh my gosh this has been so hard on my family!’ They’re like, ‘no we get to celebrate!’”
With Lara already on board, Jessica collected together a few more professionals (“the coolest thing about directing is you just surround yourself with people that know way more than you!”) and set about creating Pozole in a magnificently DIY way. Jessica ended up producing the majority of it. “I didn’t quite gel with my producer. I didn't realize how many people you end up firing when you make a film. That was a big lesson for me. It's not because they did anything horrendous, it’s just that we have to be able to make every tiny decision in sync. If all of those decisions aren't lining up, then sometimes you have to part ways. I need to find somebody that I'm going to know is going to choose the right X or the right Y.”
With the help of producer and New Mexico local Jenn Garcia, they location-scouted a colorful, traditional house in Albuquerque for the shoot (the owner of which cooked them all pozole on their last day) and began searching for and recruiting the extra actors they needed for the short. Wanting to make sure the cast was as authentic as possible, Jessica decided to recruit a combination of trained actors and locals to act in the film. Monica Sanchez, who plays the mother, was recommended by a friend at LAByrinth, once known as the Latino Actors Base. Jessica was shown a photo of her and said, “If she can act, she’s got it.” Then the rest of the cast acting the little parts were found in LA and were all people from New Mexico. “It’s hard to get people in a Latino community to get behind something,” Jessica explains, “as they’re so cynical about their own representation.”
She managed though, asking the producer to spread the word on social media of a mixer on location in New Mexico to attract local people to get involved in the film if they were interested. “We put out food trays and invited people along to an office in New Mexico,” Jessica recalls. Her idea worked and a group of people showed up, keen to know more. “We just sat around in a big circle, and talked about our lack of representation, why I wanted to make this movie, what was important to me, my approach to the film and how I wanted to try to change the overall view of Latinos in the film industry.”
Some of the actors who turned up and later participated in the film were retired and looking for something to be involved in. Others brought their children along to the initial meeting so they could see Jessica in action. “They were like; ‘we want our kids to see that this matters and see what you're doing,’” they told Jessica. “They wanted them to be able to see their faces on screen.” It was an emotional day, some of the people who turned up began to cry. “It was a beautiful experiment. I still get messages from the family being like, ‘I’m still going to be at this film festival! Will I see you there?’ They’re all so excited.”
Not all of the extras were trained actors. Even some of the main cast were not. “The woman who plays Tia, the aunt, has never acted or been on-camera in her life,” says Jessica. “They’re the most passionate background people that you’ll ever find. I mean obviously it helps when the thing you have made does well, but you can’t be like, ‘I’m going to try and change this industry for these people!” and then take advantage of them. You have to make them feel like they’re wanted and loved. They feel like a family. The dynamic we got and the facial expressions and all of those things…it worked really well.”
Directing some people you have just met on a short when many of them have never been in front of a camera before is not a situation many directors would relish, but Jessica jumped straight in. “The nice thing about my style, is it really lends itself towards having people that are really natural who don’t have to do much,” says Jessica. “Mostly it's me telling them, ‘you stand there’ and ‘give me this one look that's really pained.’ You don’t hear me off camera talking them through it because the sound mix is a great thing and later you can take your own voice away to make it sound like whatever. As long as they’re not speaking you can be telling them exactly what to do.”
As you’ll see, the finished film is a charming short made up of well-formed characters, an impressive and instinctive use of music and the universally appealing storyline focusing on the more difficult aspects of long-surviving family dynamics. Pozole – a film made on a small budget and with a cast and crew of 75% Latino men and women – has received multiple awards and continues to tour the world’s festival circuits which, for a self-trained filmmaker, a cast of mostly untrained actors and a relatively small budget, is pretty inspiring.
The next step for Jessica is to try and get it Oscar-nominated. “If you look at Wes Anderson’s early films – and obviously these are also people that come from a lot of affluence and like, I came from nothing – you’re talking about people who come from a certain level of affluence who tell a story of people who have a certain level of affluence,” says Jessica. “I think it’s totally possible for somebody who didn’t come from an affluent childhood or who comes from an ethic background to be one of those big names. I’m gonna become an auteur in a way I think the community needs. As much as it’s fun for me I hope it inspires and I want to bring people in and nurture this big change.”