A South American kidnapping story pulls at the heartstrings in Cannes

EPA-EFE//PAOLO AGUILAR

Peruvian Navy official patrol on board an Amphibious Hovercraft on the Ucayali river, in the city of Pucallpa, Peru's central jungle.

A South American kidnapping story pulls at the heartstrings in Cannes


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Peruvian film director Melina Leòn presented her touching first film Song Without a Name at the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival. A powerful black and white film set in the 1980s, it tells the dramatic story of a mother whose child is abducted by human traffickers. New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Leòn to discuss her bleak tail.

Federico Grandesso (FG): How did you first confront these cases?

Melina Leòn (ML): My father was a journalist. He passed few away years ago and he was one of the founders of the newspaper La Republica. Together with a couple of other journalists, in 1981 he wrote about the cases of trafficking of children in Peru. That case was the first headline in the newspaper. In Peru, we go from scandal to scandal so I had heard about the story. Then we received a phone call from a French lady, Celine, that wanted just to thank my father because she was able to return to Peru and meet her biological mother. She found out that she was never given up for adoption, but she had been trafficked. This made a big impression on me.

FG: Were the courts involved?

ML: Absolutely. There is a political aspect of the film where I developed my critical ideas. In the original case, Peruvian judges were involved in trafficking. This is how it became “legal“. The children were stolen, but left the country in legally. In this film, the role of the police is not so important, but if you go to the police with your case it won’t matter if you don’t have money.

FG: Tell me now about the screenplay?

ML: I wrote a first draft from the point of view of the daughter, but when I was reading it and showing it to a few people it was clear that the strongest point of view was that of the mother. She is the one who lost everything. I was living in New York at the time when I wrote it and it made me realise how Peruvian I am. I was becoming sensitive again to our issues. When you live in a country where you go from scandal to scandal and where you see outrageous things all of the time, I think you become a little bit desensitised. My time in New York allowed me to again feel, for myself and my country, after having a little bit of distance. That allows you to create. You see better when you are a little bit far away.

FG: Were there other cases that inspired you?

Yes. I never met Celine, the person who made the phone call. We are in touch now, but she was not able to come the premier of the film here in Cannes. The person I met for real was the mother of two kids stolen when they were seven and eight years old. Their case was terrible because the kids were traumatised and when they came back the relationship was difficult.

FG: Do you have some data about child trafficking as well as who is involved and where it is still a problem?

ML: They don’t know the exact numbers, but we think there are at least around 400 cases. The particular case that the film is based on ended when they went to jail, but the problem, in general, never stopped. In my country it is still happening like in other parts of the world. In Peru the trafficking is concentrated around the famous area of Machu Pichu and also in another city close to the jungle.

FG: How was the protagonist eventually kidnapped?

ML: She heard on the radio that they were offering free daycare. You have to remember that at the time, they were immigrants and their families were not living there. She was alone with her husband always travelling with the truck. For this reason, she thought it was a good idea and she trusted the fake clinic.

FG: Were you inspired by the film Roma fromMexican movie director Alfonso Cuaron?

ML: We shot at the same time, therefore, I was not directly inspired. Of course, there are some similarities. We are becoming aware of the need to have indigenous ladies as leaders and as protagonists of films. The majority of South Americans are indigenous, so the real question is why aren’t there more indigenous protagonists?

FG: How did you insert the political elements like the financial crisis? Why was it so important?

ML: I think there is an entire generations of Peruvians that were traumatised during that period between 1985-1990. We seemed to lose control of everything. Our president at that time, Alan Garcia Perez, was a very unstable person and he recently shot himself when the police finally arrive to his door. Regarding that chaotic period, I think in a way the film doesn’t seems to end.

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