Grief was a consistent theme throughout the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which took place January 10-20 in a virtual setting. A solid chunk of the programming, both feature films and short films, explored feelings of loss and heartbreak, and desperation for connection — all things that have been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Filmmaker Gabriela Ortega channeled this energy and life experience into her short film Huella, which translates to fingerprints. Debuting at the festival, the experimental drama focuses on Daniela (Shakira Barerra), a flamenco dancer who is stuck fielding calls at her typical 9-5 desk job. Her grandmother’s death sparks a generational curse, and through a series of interpretive dance sequences and flashbacks, Daniela is guided through the stages of grief by her ancestors.
Opening up about her experience at Sundance, Ortega told us, “I think what’s beautiful about this year is that it’s virtual. We get to do all these things that we may have not gotten to in the festival because of all the craziness. We get to talk to the people watching the film, and people are writing to me telling me about their grandmas and all this stuff.” She continued, “And I’m just like, wow, you know, when it’s like this, when it’s wide open, it gets to more people, and that’s beautiful.”
Monsters & Critics had the opportunity to chat with Ortega and Huella’s lead actor Shakira Barrera during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. We spoke about their inspirations behind the short film, their favorite on-set memories, and what they see for the future of Huella.
Monsters & Critics: Gabriela, can you talk to me about the inspiration behind Huella and your decision to condense it into a short film?
Gabriela Ortega: Well, the first I can answer. It was pouring out of me, things that I was already thinking about. I get a lot of inspiration from my family and from things that happen in the truth, like in real life. Even if it’s not literally what happened. I always get inspired. Like, for example, there’s a scene in the short that happens at a church. And the inspiration behind that was that my mom got into a fistfight and was gonna get reprimanded, and she was really young. And instead of saying she was sorry, she’s just ran away from home, went to the local church, and was like, ‘take me in, I want to be a nun, I want to be a nun,’ because that was her way of salvation.
Stories like that, I connect to. I feel like the people and the women in my family are so important to me, and they’re so resilient and strong. Any chance I get to put them into my work and honor them, and any chance I get to bring the Caribbean anywhere, I just do it.
And then, in terms of condensing it, I think it started off as just exploring the five stages of grief. And obviously, grief is so big, and it looks like so many different things over time. I always intended for it to be a feature. But in this in this business, if you don’t come from money, or you have a connection in this business, people aren’t giving you dollars to make movies. I think it’s a beautiful route to do a short and tell people ‘I can do this’ and then sell them in the idea of something bigger, which is what I want eventually.
M&C: Shakira, can you tell me about your process of stepping into the role of Daniela? Including any challenges that you faced, especially tapping into these feelings of generational trauma and grief.
Shakira Barrera: First of all, it was a lot of talking to Gabriela to understand where she’s coming from, why the story’s important to her, and her vision. And getting the accent down, the Dominican accent, because, you know, we don’t all speak the same. That was the most important thing— just to be authentic. And there’s a lot of pressure to honor that. I have a lot of Dominican friends who would be very mad at me if I didn’t get it. That was first and foremost. And the dancing was just easy for me, honestly. It was such a relief. It was so healing.
And in terms of the stages of grief, my grandmother was sick, and she was extremely sick while we shot this, and honestly, Daniela and I were like one and the same. Some roles are just more you, and this role was definitely more me. I was being present in it. Gabriela made such a safe space for me to just be free.
M&C: I really felt these themes of sisterhood and community towards the end of the movie. Do you have a favorite on-set memory that’s really stuck with you?
Barrera: One of my favorite things that happened was in the dance sequence. All the women are powerful at the end. I remember we were filming that and it was so hot in the room. It was a fully carpeted room; there were no windows. And we did the COVID compliant thing; we aired it out every so often. But to dance with five women in a room that was carpeted was so challenging.
I just looked to my left and to my right and would see these women sweating, not wanting to stop. It was so inspiring. Like, they did not want to stop for anything. They didn’t want to go get water; they didn’t want to go downstairs to get air. They just wanted to keep going. That moment, to me, was just like we’re in the right place. We’re in the right time. This is the story that we wanted to tell.
M&C: Gabriela, can you talk to me about flamenco and what that art form really means to you, and why you decided to carry it through this movie?
Ortega: In general, I’ve always been drawn to dance. If I could do anything else in the arts, I would have loved to be a dancer. I did jazz and ballet when I was little. In the Dominican Republic, I think of the Spanish influence, and also just this concept of like, the girls go to dance class, and the boys do sports. Like in the DR, the boys do baseball. And then the girls do ballet or flamenco.
I remember being on the ballet side. And I just remember looking at all these young girls, and I had a friend that did flamenco too, and they had these little heels, and I felt like they were rattling the earth. They were just little hurricanes right there, and it was so powerful. I had an acting background too. I was very inspired by [Federico García] Lorca’s plays. And they had an element of flamenco and very strong women. And so, like that kind of kept evolving, and obviously, Rosalia, her first album, bringing flamenco into the mainstream was also very inspiring.
I just feel that dance is both so feminine and so masculine at the same time, and it’s so full of emotion. Everyone, from the guitar players to the people doing the candles, are so passionate. Their emotions make the air thick, and I was like, that’s the dance for this short. That is the movie.
M&C: What are you hoping audiences take away from this movie? And what do you see in the future for Huella?
Ortega: I would love for people to take a moment to themselves to process their emotions and allow themselves to feel. I think you can ask a lot of logical questions in such a short amount of time. I want people to feel something. It is more important, to me, for them to get angry, cry, or just feel inspired than for them to ask too many questions. It’s about allowing ourselves to feel again and not be desensitized by everything we watch, by everything we see, and to just remember that we can allow ourselves to let go.
In terms of the future, there’s way more. I want to expand on this world. I want to expand on Danny’s career as a dancer her ambitions, I want to expand on this curse that we see a little seed of, but we don’t really get the full version of it. And I’d be really, really excited to make a film that is thrilling, good, and has a lot of genre-bending elements, and just happens to have Latino characters. It’s not about just being Latino. It’s not about putting ourselves in a box. It’s about expanding out of it.
Barrera: However, they want to connect to it is none of my business. But for me, I want them to not leave anything unsaid to anybody that they love. Really tell them that you love them, hug them tight. I think these past two years have shown us that people can go, you know, and that’s the circle of life. But if you had the opportunity to say what you wanted to say, not to hold back… For me, it was such a healing experience, through Daniela, being able to say what I wanted to say to my grandmother. It was so healing, and I feel like I can move forward, and it leaves room for an abundance of things to happen because I don’t have that tension in my chest because I’ve said all I needed to say. That’s what I hope for our audience members, to really look inward and to say whatever it is you want to say to the people that you love.
And for the future of this, I hope that we can make a feature. I’m a big fan of Black Swan and Suspiria. I love that genre with dance and thriller and suspense. It’s just so interesting to watch; dancing on film is so interesting to watch. It’s a universal language that I think isn’t shot enough and not put into mainstream media enough. I think this is a really good opportunity for our community and for Hollywood to step up. They’re saying they want us to make this content, and you have a great filmmaker here who has a team who’s ready to go. So that’s what I hope for us, for the future.
What’s next? Read our 2022 Sundance Film Festival interview with Brian and Charles’ David Earl.