Eva Aridjis is often mistaken for a director's girlfriend when she attends Mexican film festivals. Though she has directed and produced two documentaries in Mexico and the full-length feature The Favor (2007) in the United States, her boyfriend is usually the one people approach with questions—even though he has nothing to do with the films. It's not surprising; in the past few years, male Mexican directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón have achieved mass global appeal, with independent Spanish-language productions (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien) as well as high-powered Hollywood fare (Babel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
Now their female counterparts are claiming a share of the spotlight. With more domestic funds available and more movies being made in Mexico than ever before, women like Aridjis are embracing the opportunity and bringing a fresh sensibility to filmmaking. The pensive, moody documentaries Aridjis filmed in Mexico City, Niños de la Calle(Children of the Street) and La Santa Muerte (Saint Death), delved into the shunned existence of marginalized Mexicans: street children and cult followers. In her new movie, Animalia, about the human-animal hybrids that result from an experiment gone awry, Aridjis says she wanted to focus on the "freaks" of society. "Most films you see are about normal people in unusual situations," she says. "I'm more interested in unusual people in normal situations. I just feel a desire to give a voice to people who are in some way or another misfits or living on the edge of society."
She can relate to how they feel: when she first came to Mexico to do the movie 10 years ago, she was shut down by producers who refused to see her as more than a "little girl," she says. Thanks to her intervening success—Children of the Street was nominated for two Ariels, Mexico's Oscars—she has now almost completely financed the $3 million film.
Other Mexican women are winning funding—and notice—for their intimate, humane portrayals of everyday Mexican life. Mariana Chenillo took the best-director prize at the Moscow International Film Festival this year for Cinco Dias Sin Nora (Five Days Without Nora), about a man whose ex-wife has just committed suicide. First-time director Andrea Martinez won the audience award at the Biarritz International Festival for Cosas Insignificantes (Insignificant Things), about a young girl who collects items lost by strangers. Eva Lopez Sanchez, whose 2002 film Francisca earned high praise for its depiction of the 1968 Mexican student-activist massacre, is back with La Ultima y Nos Vamos (One for the Road), a story about modern relationships. And Maria Novaro, perhaps the country's best-known female director, returned from a nine-year hiatus this year with Las Yerbas Buenas (The Good Herbs), about an Alzheimer's patient.
It's been a tough slog. According to the government-run Mexican Film Institute (Imcine), the percentage of full-length feature films produced in the country by women hovers between 2 and 4 percent. In the last year, Imcine made financial awards to 20 male and five female filmmakers. "Women feel that the doors are open, but for some the productions don't come through," says Catherine Bloch, president of the Mexico chapter of Women in Film and Television. It is "highly improbable" that any of their movies will be picked up by a major distributor. Indeed, women face the same obstacle that is crippling the entire Mexican film industry: confronted with a constant flood of American blockbusters, theaters give short shrift to local films.
Slowly, that's changing. Patricia Riggen's 2007 La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), about a boy who travels from Mexico to the United States to find his mother who has left in search of work, grossed a record-breaking $23 million in both Mexico and the U.S. Now Riggen is directing a Vivaldi biopic for Columbia Pictures. She faced a lot of obstacles in making Luna, she says, "and a big part of it was a lack of respect for being a woman director." Things are better now: "It's a great moment, our boundaries and borders are more open than ever." For Issa López, a bright young star of the industry, being a woman is, if anything, an advantage. "The crews I've worked with grew protective of their female director, and they are, in a quite charming way, ready to fight for her," López says. She made the 2006 comedy Efectos Secundarios (Side Effects), about four young adrift adults, and last year's Casi Divas (Road to Fame), about four women who want to become stars, with the U.S. studios Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures, respectively—a rare feat for a Mexican woman. But one that seems destined to become more commonplace.