22 Year-Old Director Jessa López Sainz on Her Sundance Debut ‘Bajo las brasas,’ the Inspiring Story of a First-Gen College Student

In 2010, the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF) established the “Identity and Belonging” Collegiate Documentary Project. An annual affair, the contest selects six students from the Guanajuato region whose film projects are then developed in hopes of producing shorts fit for the world’s leading film festivals. This is certainly the case for Verónica Jessamyn “Jessa” López Sainz’s documentary, Bajo las brasas (Beneath the Embers). A winner of GIFF’s 2015 contest, Jessa’s film now finds itself screening as part of the Shorts Program at the Sundance Film Festival – quite a feat considering she’s only twenty-two and this is her debut film as a director.

The film focuses on Isabel, a young woman whose dreams of going to college are coming true—an unthinkable, and unappealing outcome for many in her rural community. Shot against the beautiful lush landscapes of the Guanajuato mountains, the doc has an earthy, DIY aesthetic that underscores Isa’s own nostalgic view of the family and community she’s left behind. Jessa has created a touching portrait of an ambitious young woman who dreams of something more, while celebrating the family who rallied around her – even as they knew college would lead her away from the country life they’ve always known.

‘Bajo las brasas’ Sundance screening
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Ahead of the Park City premiere of Bajo las brasas, Remezcla talked to Jessa and her A.D. Andrea Fuentes Charles about how their original idea of shooting a documentary following the men who work to produce charcoal in a small community turned into a story of academic success.

Bajo las brasas screens as part of the Shorts Program 3 at the Sundance Film Festival.


On Isabel As A Role Model

Jessa: I’ve been in love with cinema since I was a little girl, and for four years now—since I started at school, actually—I’ve been getting involved with the production side. This project was the result of a contest held by the Guanajuato International Film Festival that aims to reclaim ideas of “identity and belonging” within young people in the region. And well, we decided to take on Isabel’s story. From the beginning we were interested in charcoal production which is really fascinating, but then we fell in love with Isabel. She’s such an interesting woman; she’s a fighter, and a dreamer, and worthy of being known. So we decided to mix the charcoal production bits with the family side of Isabel’s story, to tell a bit about her sacrifices and her courage.

She’s such an interesting woman; she’s a fighter, and a dreamer, and worthy of being known.

Andrea: At the start we knew we wanted to focus on this community called Laurel, and on these men who worked with charcoal. What struck us at first was their lifestyle, and we wanted to see what working in that was like. But the more we got to know this community and got to talk to them, we discovered that one person from that community—Isabel—was actually studying at our University. After meeting her, we realized how great her story was, how much courage she’d shown by becoming the first person from her community to go college, and that’s what we ended up focusing on.

On What They Hope Audiences Take Away From The Short

Andrea: Well, to tell you the truth, we believe we all have a bit of Isabel in all of us. She’s a fighter and she won’t be put down. That’s really what we wanted, for people to identify with her, find their own dream worth pursuing and what’s worth sacrificing to accomplish it – but knowing that at the end of the day, you can achieve some sort of balance.

Isabel Chía Chía, protagonist of ‘Bajo las Brasas’
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Jessa: What was hard was actually living and shooting in that community. It was a bit hard because they have no electricity. No water. Not a store or a mall. Nothing. We were staying in this tiny room, all of nine of us, and we had to make sure we’d ration our food right—we didn’t want it to run out! And it’s exhausting going out there and working two weeks straight 24/7, trying to balance getting the work done and staying focused.

On Being Thrilled To Go To Sundance

Jessa: Just the fact that they’re showing our short is the best thing that could’ve happened to me and the entire crew. That they’re showing it four times and giving us the chance to visit schools around the area is just very meaningful to us, and we’re so grateful for that. It’s very exciting,

because hopefully it’ll be a great opportunity to meet producers and people in the industry who can open some doors for us—some of us really want to pursue filmmaking. And really, just the experience: it’s not every day a Mexican gets to go and enjoy Sundance the we way we plan on doing!

This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.