In a rickety house in the outskirts of Cuernavaca lives a young boy named Diego. His mother eggs him on to help out with the chores around the house. A cousin teases him by urging him to kill a rabbit they keep outside. His father wishes he weren’t so sensitive and would just man up. But Diego doesn’t much fit in. He’s scared of the guns the men around him carry so proudly, and you can tell that he doesn’t approve of their newest “guest” – a young girl in a private school uniform his father keeps locked away in one of the rooms of the house.

Winner of the Gold Lion Award at the Barcelona International Film Festival, Diego is Sara Seligman’s third short film. Born and raised in Mexico, Seligman went to film school in New York. She’s been working as a production assistant ever since she graduated. A mere look at her resume places her on the sets of The Mindy Project, The Comeback, The People vs OJ Simpson and even Ben Affleck’s latest, Live by Night. Indeed, it was through that last gig working with producer Jennifer Todd that she got her most recent job: working at the 89th Academy Awards. She was in the wings of the stage when she, along with all the other crew members with headsets heard the words “It’s wrong.” As her friends now tell her, she got to be part of a historic moment. You can almost hear the anecdote writing itself, “I was mere feet away when La La Land was wrongly announced as the winner of Best Picture in 2017.”

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While she initially took these PA jobs as a way to get by, she admits that she’s learned a lot by being on these various sets. She’s gotten to see firsthand how different directors approach their actors and their crew. “You see what works and what doesn’t, from the business and the creative side.” But directing has always been the goal.

“The story of Diego is something I always had in my head,” she told Remezcla. “Unfortunately kidnapping in Latin America, but also specifically in Mexico where I’m from, is a common occurrence. Kidnapping is, sadly, not that farfetched for us. I really wanted to think about the other side of the coin.” Wanting to explore the nurture versus nature debate using Mexico as a backdrop, Diego stages its intimate story in closed quarters where the young boy faces the hardest decision of his life.

Hit play on the video up top to watch the exclusive online premiere of Diego. 

Part of what makes Diego so affecting is its central performance. As the young boy caught between family duties and his own sense of what’s right, Leonardo Camargo Tejeda gives a captivating performance. And yes, “it is absolutely difficult” to work with children, Seligman admits. But she tried to help herself as much as possible by casting a number of talented actors in the adult roles. That includes Amores Perros’ Humberto Busto and Christian Vazquez. They made her job on set a lot easier. “They were kind enough to help me because I knew that most of my time on set would have to be spent with the child actor.”

Being on set as a kid, apparently, can be very boring. There’s a lot of waiting around and trying to keep Leonardo’s attention span was a challenge in itself. Thankfully, Seligman found a way to keep him entertained in between takes: an Xbox. “We didn’t think of it the first day. But he was really bored and I was talking to him and I just asked, ‘What can we do? ’ because he was like, ‘Can we shoot yet? Can we shoot yet?’ I had to tell him, ‘No, we’re lighting’ or ‘No, we’re setting up.’” It was only once she asked him what he’d be doing in his spare time if he was at home that the idea of the Xbox came up. “It worked like a miracle.”

“I’d never seen any actor do so much character work. It was adorable, and inspiring”

But the gaming console isn’t really why Leonardo was able to produce such an authentic performance. She credits it instead to her decision to treat him like an adult actor. There was no talking down to him. And, since Diego spends most of the film reacting to things around him — he has very few lines — they discussed the concept of subtext at length. Seligman even asked him to write on his script the many things his character would say to those around him if he weren’t so scared of them. Next time they rehearsed, she saw he’d scrawled all over his script. “I’d never seen any actor do so much character work. It was adorable, and inspiring, and impressive.”

Within its domestic setting, Diego tackles quite cleverly the way a certain brand of machismo adds to the systemic violence across Mexico. When society keeps telling you that violence and physical strength are the only ways to measure one’s manhood, it warps people’s minds. “In the end, it turns out that Diego is the bravest person in that household even though he’s not violent.”

“They find my aesthetic very masculine and the weird thing is that they think that’s a compliment.”

In a depressing turn of events, though, this thematic has often led to many people being surprised at the fact that Diego was directed by a woman. “They expect it to be a guy. They find my aesthetic very masculine and the weird thing is that they think that’s a compliment. Like, I should be happy that they thought I was a guy?” Those moments have served as needling reminders that “as female directors, and as a Latina female director, I have a lot of uphill battles to fight until I get my first feature film made.”

That first feature, she shared, is about a mother and daughter who are serial killers. Yes, she knows how dark that sounds, but that’s the type of offbeat work she wants to do. But as she’s learned, it’s also what makes getting funding that much harder. “It’s been four years since I finished the script and we’ve been trying to get the money to make it. Oftentimes, the deal breaker is myself wanting to direct it. People would be willing to buy the script but not take the risk for a first-time director.” She knows it’s going to be a battle — one female filmmakers have been fighting for a while — but that’s how much she believes in her project. We can’t wait to be first in line to see the finished product.