The best music documentaries harness the emotional power of the art form to convey an essential truth, either about the people who make the music or the people who listen to it. “Mija” adds a third group to this equation: the people who make the music possible. “Mija” instructor Isabel Castro has a lot in common with his primary subject, Doris Muñoz: Both are young Mexican-American women, and both are emerging in creative fields – Castro as a filmmaker and Muñoz as an independent (i.e. independent) leader of alternative Latinx musicians. Muñoz feels a complicated mix of guilt, anger, loyalty, and gratitude toward her immigrant parents, and the artists she represents have similarly complex feelings about family, home, ambition, and creativity.
Perhaps because of the director’s familiarity with the details of her subjects’ lives and relationships, “Mija” paints a more nuanced portrait of the immigrant experience in America than many documentaries on the subject. Too often, immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are abstracted into “issues” to be debated instead of being recognized as complicated, conflicted people living real human lives. “Mija” is the antidote to that, both in terms of content and storytelling. Castro is a silent off-screen presence in “Mija,” but her love for these young people bleeds through in the film. Castro’s pace is laid-back, as are her subjects’ attitudes to life; her compositions are colorful, just like their culture. Add the universal language of music and you have a wonderful example of Roger Ebert‘s famous quote about film as an “empathy machine.”
I could tell you to watch “Catch the Fair One” because it raises awareness of a pressing issue — the epidemic of violence, especially sexual violence, against Native women in North America. And it would be true: Star Kali Reis co-wrote the screenplay, which incorporates both Reis’ experience as a professional fighter and her original background in the story, about a washed-up boxer named Kaylee (Reis) who risks it all in a dangerous one-woman mission to save her little sister from sex traffickers. But this is not just an important film. It is also a brutal, uncompromising, dark, impetuous. This is the kind of film that leaves a mark.