Few journalists covering the relentless violence of cartels, narcos and sicarios in Mexico were closer to chronicling the direct human impact of the ferocious drug wars than the late Javier Valdez, who was assassinated because of his investigative reporting. In his weekly column Malayerba, which was slang for marijuana, he brought to light stories about waitresses, beauty queens and models who had narcos as boyfriends, drug mules and those who laundered cash from drug transactions. His first book, published in 2009, was Miss Narco, where he wrote, “The skin of the Western Sierra Madre has blood in its pores … The memory of villages burned, families running terrified, men robbed, mutilated, and killed, women of all ages submitted to sexual abuse.”
Valdez’s last book in 2012 before he was killed, Levantones (which translated to English as The Taken) brought forward some of the stories of the many thousands of individuals who disappeared without a trace, along with the emotional toll it took upon their surviving loved ones.
That book, in part, inspired the provenance of Sujo, an astounding, brilliantly acted narrative feature set in the midst of the Mexican western state of Michoacán. Directed and written by Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, the film opens with a cartel gunman who has been assassinated. Sujo, his four-year-old son, is left behind as an orphan. The film’s narrative tension focuses on whether or not the son, as he grows into young adulthood, can escape the vicious legacy that led to his father’s death. In 2020 at Sundance, Valadez and Rondero won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Screenplay in their dramatic feature Identifying Features. The film took the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance premiere.
Sujo poignantly portrays the humanistic elements of the collateral damage in the cartel war. With his father dead, the four-year-old is wanted. Sicarios and narcos do not want to risk the chance that when the boy grows into adulthood, he will become a threat to them. At four, Sujo is quintessential innocence and helplessness. He doesn’t know about how to unlock the car door. His aunt comes to his aid and he stays with her in an isolated town beset by poverty and the realities of violence always being nearby.
In his teens, Sujo is restless and ready to strike out on his own and, sure enough, he enlists with a local cartel. He has become friends with Jai and Jeremy, with whom he grew up. They also eventually become entangled with the nefarious business. Now that it has become too dangerous for Sujo to remain in this isolated part of Michoacán, he is sent to Mexico City. There, he finds works on the loading docks for agricultural produce and he is interested in pursuing his studies. Sujo has a good work ethic and gradually builds up his means of livelihood.
Inevitably, the claws of the cartel are never that far away and, even as roots of stability in his life are within his grasp, a visit from a hometown friend has the potential of upsetting his most constructive hopes. The question becomes if Sujo can completely detach himself from the inherited legacy that caused his father’s violent death. And, is there anyone who could support him enough to gain the confidence of unchaining himself from the burdens of that terrible inheritance.
The directors structure the narrative in episodes, as they represent the formative seasons of life for the young Sujo. Equally significant is his unique name which does not have a neat translation. His father had named his son after a horse. As much as the directors were inspired by Valdez’s Levantones, they also were drawn to Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy. “The stories of orphans in turbulent times are a way to see ourselves finding understanding under the most hopeful light,” the directors wrote in an artistic statement. “The name Sujo comes from a Mongolian legend that Fernanda [Valadez] read as a child, a story of friendship between a boy and a horse.”
Their 2020 film narrative which premiered at Sundance, Identifying Features, which also won the audience award in the World Cinematic Drama Competition, is about many immigrants who often go missing or die on their journeys and most of the story’s characters in that film are mothers trying to locate their children.
The actors in Sujo give command performances. Playing the eponymous lead, Juan Jesús Varela fleshes out the complex counterpoint in which his character is embedded, with utmost credibility. He also had a role in Identifying Features. Likewise, Yadira Pérez Esteban excels as Nemesia, his aunt who knows better than anyone else in the isolated community what the omnipresent threat of death and violence will bring. Nemesia is the connection to the ghosts that forever haunt this land of uncontrolled violence. Sandra Lorenzano is a standout, as Susan, the literature professor in Mexico City originally from Argentina, who recognizes Sujo’s earnest intellectual curiosities and is willing to help him matriculate for pursuing the dreams of continuing his studies.
Sujo is a resounding testament, reminding us of how brave individuals take on so many dangerous risks to subvert a culture of forced silence and self-censorship, for the sake of preserving their precarious existence. There is a glimmer of hope that one day they will not be swallowed up by a black hole that always threatens to eclipse optimism and hope for a life free from relentless violence.
For more information and tickets, see the Sundance Film Festival website.