Documentarian Tatiana Huezo on the Challenges of Transitioning to Fiction With ‘Noche de Fuego’

Photos courtesy of Los Cabos International Film Festival. Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Few projects coming from Latin America are currently as highly anticipated as Noche de fuego. A loose film adaptation of Jennifer Clement’s bestselling novel, Prayers for the Stolen, the 2020 release will mark the first fiction feature from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo. Known for El lugar más pequeño and Tempestad, both projects which tackled the aftereffects of violence on rural communities, Huezo has set her sights on yet another story that puts lawless impunity and women’s stories front and center. Set in a nondescript town in contemporary Mexico, the project will follow three young girls as they grow up in a town ravaged by fear and violence.

Wary and excited in equal measure, Huezo and her producer Nicolás Celis (who was also behind Roma and Pájaros de verano), unveiled the very first look at Noche de fuego to a welcoming crowd at Los Cabos International Film Festival. They offered a three-minute clip from the film that showed two separate but connected scenes of the still-in-post-production project. The first centered on Ana, a young girl silently seething as her long hair is cut by a hairdresser. Keeping the focus on Ana’s teary eyes, the scene made it clear that this was not by choice. It’s an assertion the next scene solidified, as a young machete-wielding mother pleads with an armed man that she has no daughter in the house, only her son who’s away chopping wood. In between their tense exchange we see Ana, short hair held together with a clip, hiding just out of sight, terrified of being found out.

The gripping scenes, both of which put Ana’s point of view front and center, show that Huezo’s nonfiction training has honed into a keen-eyed vision that makes Noche de fuego all the more visceral.

“What documentary filmmaking has given my life is everything,” she told Remezcla shortly after. “It’s everything I am. It’s my way of looking at the world, the way of relating to others, of listening to their stories, of receiving them. It’s huge. It’s from that point of view that I built this movie. It was my compass, my way of finding the truth in everything we were making: from the mise en scène to the performances.”

Indeed, that proved to be the biggest challenge for the filmmaker. Having worked extensively with real-life people when building her films, the prospect of creating these characters from scratch and getting them to feel real was daunting.

“What documentary filmmaking has given my life is everything.”

“Perhaps the most important thing of this journey from documentary to fiction has been trying to place the emotions of a human being in the skin of a character,” she had told the audience at Los Cabos who got to see the preview clips.

Thus, while the writing process of adapting Clement’s novel was new territory that proved to be quite enjoyable for the Salvadoran-born and Mexican-based filmmaker, the move to make her script sing on the screen would require collaborating with actors, something she’d never done before. Huezo spent close to a year casting the three main characters of Noche de fuego (who we meet both when they’re 8 years old and later when they’re 14, requiring six girls in total). It was an arduous process; Huezo wanted nonprofessional actresses who would immerse themselves in the project and actually rehearse for months leading up to the shoot. She didn’t want the girls she found (which include a familiar face plucked from Tempestad’s circus-set scenes) to merely be: She wanted them truly inhabit their characters. That’s why they spent months living together in Querétaro and training alongside acting coach Fatima Toledo.

“They became my daughters, all of them,” she shared with Remezcla. “It was a very intense relationship. Very loving but also very rigorous. Because I’m rather rigorous. The truth is that they’re not, you know as they say, natural-born actors. No, all these girls had a very punishing prepping process that required them to interiorize a reality quite different from their own.”

This wasn’t going to be a fiction film shot as if it were a documentary. It would be a fiction film shot with a documentary sensibility. “There’s a link to nonfiction filmmaking,” she assured the crowd, “but it’s a whole different language.”

This conversation has been translated from Spanish by the author for Remezcla.