Director Andy Villanueva on Racking up Awards, Sexism & Being a Mexican Immigrant in Canada

Whether it’s about sharing a point of view or an autobiographical reflection, when a project is fueled by artistic necessity – and not simply financial gain – there is always a personal dimension. But on the scale of sensitive themes for a creator to expose in her work, some are much more intimate than others.

In the case of emerging filmmaker Andy Villanueva, she bravely chose to craft a two-minute, stop-motion movie about her own abortion and the unconditional support she received from her father. Not only did she make every element of the piece by hand to imbue it with emotional resonance, but she did it knowing that this deeply private short would be submitted for consideration for the Horizon Award, which seek to champion new female talent in the film industry by offering mentorship and an all-expenses paid trip to the Sundance Film Festival. In giving her the honor, organizers recognize her efforts exploring difficult moment in her life through storytelling and doing so in an unorthodox manner that elevated the notions behind it.

An immigrant herself and an outspoken woman of color, Villanueva was born in Mexico City and later migrated to Canada with her family where they initially faced financial struggles familiar to most people trying to make a new country their home. Proud of her Mexican identity, she is active in Toronto’s Hispanic community and remains inspired by the art and traditions of her homeland, which she cherishes and includes in her stories.

Winning the Horizon Award, which is now in its third edition, was a breakthrough for the young visionary, who was introduced to the American independent film industry at Sundance and for whom many more opportunities await. However, despite her current success, no one should expect her to tame her blunt attitude and fearless choices, because beyond being a woman of color, an immigrant, or a Mexican national, she is an artist. Get to know Andy Villanueva in depth below, surely this won’t be the last time we’ll hear from her.

On What Compelled Her to Make a Deeply Personal Short Film

I’ve been making films for a while. This is my first award in the States, but I’ve won some awards here in Toronto. This is the first film I make that is really that personal. I made it in response to everything that is going on with Trump, as a Hispanic woman I though it was really urgent to talk about reproductive rights from a personal angle, especially as a Mexican person. That’s what motivated me to make this film, which I made specifically for the Horizon Award because I thought that, God willing if it were to win, it would have a platform that would reach girls who needed to hear it.

On How She Caught the Creative Bug

I started off in theater. I used to write plays through a program called POV, then I started doing several media programs and I realized I loved film. I loved it as a medium and the permanence of it. That’s personally how I got started, but I’ve always been a film fan. I love Italian cinema, and I’m starting to pick up on Mexican cinema, because that’s something that hasn’t been accessible to me but I find really beautiful and important to me. Those are two of my major influences, Italian and Mexican cinema for sure.

On Why Stop-Motion Was the Best Medium

“I thought through stop-motion it would still be personal, but not as violating or as vulnerable”

I specifically made it stop-motion because in terms of resources it was just easier to make the film like that, and I also felt, because it was so personal, I didn’t want to capture any of the people I knew and I didn’t want to give away physical things about my life. I was already giving a very personal story, so I thought through stop-motion it would still be personal but not as violating or as vulnerable, because it’s not really me or my dad on screen. I did it all by myself a day or two before the competition’s deadline. I thought, “I’ve been holding on to this story and I wanted to say for a while,” so I applied for the competition. I did it by myself, in my room, with a tripod.

On the Struggles of Being Mexican in Canada

In Canada, from my experience, I have to prove to people I’m from Mexico, whereas in the States automatically people read that I was from Mexico. I guess there are more of us there, so they know that Mexican people we all look different. It was really amazing to be in the states and be seen as Mexican, but it also wasn’t that nice sometimes, because I encountered people at restaurants that would make fun of the servers and their accents. Nobody involved with the awards, of course, but other people around. That didn’t feel good, and I didn’t appreciate that, but other than that, since there is a lot more of us in the States there is different people representing us.

In Toronto there are less of us, and a lot of times people think I’m a white girl because my skin is a bit lighter. I don’t like that either, because I’m not. I really like going to the States and seeing more Mexican people and having people see me as Mexican was very important to me. That’s something I fight more with in Canada. Here they don’t care where you are from or they think you are mixed.

On Not Fitting the Stereotypes

We are from Mexico City so there are some cultural things that are not represented in the media. Content creating in Mexico City has a different energy. I grew up with my mom and my dad who both spoke Spanish to me, but I never had a chancla thrown at me or anything like that. That’s something some people associate with Mexico that I didn’t experience. I experience other things that are Mexican, but I didn’t experience a lot of the things I see on TV as a Mexican person. But I’m active in my community: there is a public radio station for the Hispanic community and I’m active in it and I’m picking up Mexican folk dancing to touch base with my roots. Also, for every English-language book I read, I read one in Spanish.

On Her Relationship with Her Father

I think my dad worries a lot about me because there isn’t a lot of money in the arts, or that’s what people preach. Obviously, when we came to Canada we lost a lot of our money, and a lot of the opportunities that money can give we didn’t have. Also, a lot of difficult immigration stuff happened, so I think there is a lot of urgency from my parents to try to break the circle of poverty and to really make it count for everything that we lost coming to Canada.

I think there is a lot of that pressure on me, especially when it comes to being in a university program that has nothing to do with what I want to do, but I definitely think that the more that they see me being successful in the arts they will relax a little bit more about me being in it. At first my dad wasn’t as supportive as I thought he was going to be, but he has proven that Mexican dads can also be really feminist, supportive and very loving, so I’ve been very lucky in that respect.

On How Her Parents Reaction to the Award

They didn’t believe it, and because I’m an immigrant in Canada, and I haven’t gotten my citizenship, I thought, “Oh my God, how am I supposed to get to the States. I don’t have a visa.” It was a lot of running around and trying to figure that out, a lot of panic, and a lot of money was involved, but everybody helped for me to be able to get to the States. They were over the moon, I think none of use really believed it was happening until I called them and told them I was across the border.

On Sexism in the Industry and Biases Against Female Directors

I think [women] are just taken less seriously. Even in Canada, I go around in circles to get anything done… If we are too nice then we are not that strong. During this trip I also got to hear what people had to say about other female directors – again, no one involved with the awards but people around. They would say things like, “This director is a bitch and she is not a people person.” The kind of criticism that I really doubt they would get if they weren’t women. People don’t realize how hard it is just being in a male-dominated setting and being taken seriously; you have to be kind of a bitch and you have to be strong, otherwise you get walked over and your vision isn’t honored. That’s been shown time and time again. You always have to prove that you are there because of your talent and that you are not there just because you are woman.

“You always have to prove that you are there because of your talent and that you are not there just because you are woman.”

I met a lot of people on this trip that were like, “You know, you have it easier right now because you are a woman of color to be able to produce content and be supported.” I say, “Ok, that just comes from you because you are man and now you are feeling like people are not paying a lot of attention to you, because they are realizing there are other people not being involved. But that doesn’t mean that I’m here because I don’t have talent, that doesn’t mean I’m just here because I’m a woman of color.”

I think women have to struggle a lot with plural identities of being a woman, being a woman of color, or being whatever. It’s hard for people to just see our talent, but I think that in directing, which is what the award was about, at the end of the day if the product that you see is a great product, then it’s just a great film. If it’s not then it’s just a shitty film. A good director makes or breaks films, it doesn’t have to do with our gender, and I think people are slowly realizing that women can make shitty films or really great films, and it has nothing to do with the fact that we are women.

On America Ferrera Being a Role Model

To be honest, I don’t have many female directors that I lean on to, but during the festival I saw America Ferrera talk about her production roles and the projects that she is supporting and I think that’s the person I want to be in a few years because of the way she hustles and puts on projects. That’s a woman that I really look up to. I saw her speak and she’s smart and she is not over-the-top bubbly to try to get people on her side. She just is who she is. Her voice resonates in the room and she has power. She is putting her money where her mouth is in the projects she is currently working on, and I think the quality of her productions is pretty great too, but she also knows how to play the game as an artist. Is not about “I’m Hispanic,” or “I’m a woman,” but about “I’m an artist.” I look up to her right now, in Toronto there is not that many people I want to be like. I really loved going to Sundance and seeing how they do it, now I’m re-inspired. It was a recharge of focus that I really needed.

On Putting the Prize Money to Good Use

$5000 is a lot of money, and in Canada it’s even more money. I’m really looking forward to actually now having equipment and having more than just a little camera and a tripod. I will actually have things to up my game in terms of production because I have a lot of ideas but I’m been limited. I’d still do them, but without resources it’s a harder game to make them look great, and to improve the sound quality and all those elements that really make your project stand out in terms of quality. I actually didn’t even think that was going to be a thing; I thought the award was just getting to go to Sundance. That was life-changing enough, and the fact that there were those other two elements to the award is just unreal and I’m so thankful. Cassian [Elwes] and everybody involved is so generous. It was an amazing experience and I’m really thankful for it.