“My name is Laura Guerrero. I’m 23 years old. My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state,” says the lead character in Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo, early on in the film as she auditions for a slot in a local beauty queen contest. She is merely repeating back words that were given to her by another, however, and as Laura soon becomes unwittingly involved in the dangerous business of drug dealing, taking orders and following them is often her only choice for survival.
As Laura is caught in a violent cycle, it quickly becomes painfully clear in Miss Bala that she is in over her head. Complicating matters is that in such high-stakes and lucrative territory, corruption is rampant and deciding who to trust can be confusing.
“A desire was to make the movie, to have the audience as confused as we were in Mexico. It’s very confusing in Mexico to know who is on your side,” Gerardo Naranjo (pictured, left) said today at the New York Film Festival press conference. He likened Laura’s experience with seeing a black truck with tinted windows on the street in Mexico: “It could be anything - a politician getting their way, a very rich guy, a thief who is trying to kidnap you, or it could be a policeman who is also trying to kidnap you. A box of surprises!”
Played by actress Stephanie Sigman (pictured, right), Laura’s confusion and desperation informed Naranjo’s approach to filming, which is marked by long, fluid, and very choreographed takes that focus on her, leaving much of the action happening off camera. According to Naranjo, “We said, we don’t have that much money, what if the important stuff happens off frame? We were conscious that we were navigating in the genre form. This looks like a thriller - in a thriller you know what the bad guy thinks - but what if we twist that and we commit to the lead girl?”
Miss Bala premiered at the Cannes Film Festival before screening at Toronto and San Sebastián, gaining more positive buzz last week as it was announced as Mexico’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. With drug violence very much in the headlines, Naranjo said he was inspired to make the film as a response to how popular culture has portrayed current events.
“I was very dissatisfied, precisely with every cultural medium that was portraying this situation. There was lots of misinformation. There are a lot of comedies being done in Mexico about the crime. They portray the criminals in a cool way. I was angry at those soap operas, movies, books - it's all around. I felt there was a great opportunity to talk about what I felt was closer to reality, my own interpretation about the violent state,” explained Naranjo. “We wanted to talk about how the DEA goes to Mexico and somehow controls the Mexican police. They are operating illegally; we wanted to talk about that, gun control, people bringing weapons to the US and Mexico freely.”
Although Laura’s story was inspired by the real-life occurrence of a beauty queen involved in criminal activities, Naranjo and Sigman explained at the NYFF press conference that their film is a work of fiction that references several recent headlines in the Mexican drug war. Sigman, who worked as a model before becoming an actress, told reporters that she had crossed paths with the “real” Miss Bala by coincidence. “I know her from a commercial casting. I think she’s doing commercials now in Mexico, I just met her like this.” But Sigman did not feel the need to contact her to research her role for the film. “It’s inspired by the situation; it’s not based on the story. It wasn’t really necessary to get involved [with her], for me at least.”
Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala screens on Saturday, October 1 at 9PM (buy tickets) and Sunday, October 2 at 4PM (buy tickets) at the New York Film Festival. Naranjo and Sigman will also participate in a FREE indieWIRE Meets discussion at the Amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Sunday, October 2 at 2PM.
Pictured left to right: Gerardo Naranjo and Stephanie Sigman, chatting with Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center today. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/Film Society of Lincoln Center