Unfolding in bracing, often unnervingly confusing scenes constructed from lengthy methodical takes, the dominant tone of Miss Bala (a bleak pun of a title, exchanging “Baja,” as in Baja, California, for “bala,” as in bullet) is one of traumatized trance. The film follows Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old living somewhere above the poverty line with her father and little brother, somewhere on the outskirts of a city we presume to be Tijuana. Apparently on a whim, Laura decides to enter a beauty contest and, by sheer chance, subsequently becomes the pawn of a gang of drug traffickers, led by the very scary yet quietly charismatic Lino (Noe Hernandez). He sees something special in her, some unique utility. A moll? A hostage? A Mata Hari? It’s not entirely clear. What is clear is that Laura’s fear-fuelled helplessness and forced collaboration leave her caught in a catch-22 that’s more or less symbolic of the current plight of Mexico as a whole, in the grips of a drug war that just seems to get worse.
Shifting radically from the giddy, cutty, winkily melodramatic Godardisms of his 2008 tween-lovers-on-the-run film Voy a explotar!, director and co-scenarist Gerardo Naranjo has his camera hold very, very closely to Laura, who spends much of Miss Bala frozen in a state of shock, rarely speaking but almost always busy, running, crawling, hiding, changing clothes, following instructions. We can’t know what she’s thinking, even in the scenes that require some calculation on her part, but we often know how she’s feeling, thanks to the peculiar doggedness of the film’s MO and to Sigman’s passive yet highly nuanced performance. Miss Bala is chilling, relentless, intelligent, and, if one’s inclined to notice, quite funny in a dark, dry, acid sort of way (my favourite example: the flaming tire that rolls through one especially chaotic scene of street violence like it's fallen loose from a Mel Brooks picture). It’s absolutely a must-see for many reasons, some aesthetic, some sociological. And one of those reasons is Sigman, a skillful novice with excellent instincts, particularly when it comes to cultivating a sense of intimacy with the camera, and thus with us.
I spoke with Sigman during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. She was very friendly, very excited, very forgiving of both my Spanish and my hangover, very tall in her blue dress and heels, and not altogether difficult to look at.
JB: How closely related are the stories of Laura Guerrero and Laura Zúñiga, the Sinaloa beauty queen whose ties to trafficking presumably inspired Miss Bala?
Stephanie Sigman: I don’t think they’re similar at all. It’s impossible for us to know what really happened to Laura Zúñiga. That’s one of the reasons why Gerardo made this a fiction. Of course, her story is symptomatic of a lot of things that are happening in Mexico, so it was useful to research. But because we went in a very different direction I didn’t want to focus too much on her.
JB: It seems to me that one of the major challenges for you would be that you’re the protagonist, you’re present in every scene, yet you’re far more reactive than you are active. Much is done to Laura, but she herself doesn’t really move the story forward.
SS: It’s funny, but I don’t think I was very conscious of that challenge while we were actually in production. When I saw the final film I was kind of shocked. I guess I couldn’t imagine how the pieces were going to fit. It’s weird to see yourself up there. There were moments when I actually forgot that it was me I was looking at. I would grab my chair, start to react like any other person in the cinema. It was exciting! [Laughs]
JB: Even though Laura spends most of Miss Bala in this state of suspended trauma, one of the great things about your performance is its gradations. There are distinct levels of panic or confusion or resignation. You’re always doing something that, for the most part, only we in the audience can pick up on.
SS: Yeah, it was always the camera and me. It’s just the nature of this movie—there are only about 130 cuts in the whole thing, so what happens in any one shot is really important. Single moments go on for a long time. So I had to contain, contain, contain. We needed to keep Laura passive, which I think was Gerardo’s way of commenting on the passive nature of a lot of Mexicans right now—people just don’t know what to do anymore. But at the same time there’s a lot of things going on inside that needs to be expressed somehow.
JB: You grew up in Sonora. Has your life become more affected by violence, given how things have been escalating these last several years?
SS: You’re always hearing stories about a friend of a friend, but I feel like its getting closer. The degrees of separation are fewer. That’s pretty frightening. Things have definitely gotten worse since when I was there just five years ago.
JB: I remember back when Mexico City seemed kind of scary. These days it feels like the safest place in the country.
SS: [Laughs] Yes, that reversal still seems funny to me.
JB: Obviously Laura’s ambition to become a beauty queen is different than your ambition to act, but still I wonder if that was an aspect of her character that you could relate to.
SS: I feel like most girls at some point wants to be models or beauty queens, to have something to do with the idea of beauty. I never wanted to be Miss Mexico, but I did want to model. I was in a contest, and I didn’t win. I think every girl has that princess fantasy. But that might be a very Latin American thing.
JB: That’s interesting that you were trying to model, because I would think modeling skills would come in handy in a film like Miss Bala. Again, so much of what’s required of you is to convey something powerful and specific with just a look, or with body language.
SS: Maybe. Certainly models need to have a special awareness of the camera; even when many things are going on you have to have that undistracted relationship to the camera.
JB: Throughout Miss Bala, Lino calls Laura “Canelita,” or “Little Cinnamon.” Is that because of the colour of her skin, not too dark, not too pale?
SS: I think it has something to do with that, but it also has something to do with a story about Lino himself. Noe told me that it was related to something from Lino’s youth, some girl that Laura reminded him of.
JB: Was there a lot of that? Did you all bring in backstories?
SS: I would write things, but just for myself. I prefer not to share them, because the great thing about the seeing a movie is when it stimulates your imagination and lets you figure things out on your own.
JB: I can only imagine that spending so much time in Laura’s skin could leave one feeling deeply unsettled, kind of wrung out. Were you able to shake off the residual effects of the role?
SS: I was afraid of that. I kept thinking that I was spending more than 12 hours a day in this character, and that she might start to become me. There comes a point when you start to talk like the character, eat like the character, dream like the character. But by the end I was very, very ready to lose Laura, to let her go. So I did. Just like that.