Ecuadorian filmmaker Gabriela Calvache has directed and produced several documentaries and narrative shorts before she decided to make her first feature-length narrative film. La Mala Noche recently premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It tells the story of Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) a prostitute living in Quito, Ecuador. She is the favorite among her clients and while Dana seems to be in control she harbors some dark secrets. Dana sells her body to support both her terminally ill daughter’s medical needs and her own addiction to prescription drugs, yet most of her money goes to her abusive pimp, mob boss and human trafficker, Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). When Dana sees that Nelson is about to sell a kidnapped child into sexual slavery, she enlists the help of her client and lover Julian (Cristian Mercado) to save the child.
Calvache was inspired to tell the story of human trafficking through a narrative lens to shed light on this international problem without inciting the potential mob violence that could result from making a documentary. In a Q&A at SXSW, Calvache said, “I’m not prepared to be so close to the mafia and to the traffickers.” She spent three years meeting with survivors of human trafficking and was deeply moved by their stories. One of the film’s producers, Daniela Fuentes Moncada, elaborated on the decision to make it a feature film:
“Doing a documentary about this subject and… the survivors could be a way to expose them again. Mafias are really powerful. They act as a net. They’re not just in Ecuador or Colombia… they’re everywhere we are. In my research I had to change my address and phone number three times. Doing a documentary could have some consequences.”
The idea for La Mala Noche came to Calvache when she screened her short film En Espera to a group of teens at a shelter. In speaking with the teens, she learned that they had been forced into prostitution and were rescued from different brothels. Calvache said “I felt embarrassed… because I didn’t know that human sex trafficking existed. I decided to research to make this film.”
Research began in 2011. Calvache interviewed human trafficking survivors, recording their stories but being respectfully and cautiously protective about their identities. Calvache wrote and re-wrote countless times until her script was finalized in 2017. Then came the search for her lead actress. At SXSW Calvache said,
“I was looking for an actress in Colombia… I started to work with agents but I couldn’t find what I really wanted. It was a very particular kind of woman. I was for three months trying to find someone. Finally I said I will look at Wikipedia. I opened my computer and looked up Colombian actresses. I started to check everyone from [alphabetically]… Noëlle Schönwald she’s at the end of the alphabet. When I saw her, then pictures and then a film, I said this is really interesting. I went to Facebook I looked for her and tried to find a friend in common. We had one friend in common so I called my friend…”
Her friend helped her make the connection with Noëlle Schönwald and Calvache had her star.
Sexual slavery and drug addiction are two very difficult themes, La Mala Noche delivers the story in a way that is captivating but respectful to its subject matter. At its core it’s a heart-pounding thriller about a woman on a dangerous mission. Schönwald delivers a powerful performance and Dana is a complex character who has real weaknesses but digs in to find her inner strength.
La Mala Noche focuses on a female protagonist, is written and directed by a woman, and 80% of the filmmaking crew were also women. About making the movie, Calvache said, “I wanted to tell this rough story but I wanted to make it beautiful. The subject is already too [overwhelming] so I wanted to make it delicate… We work a lot on that consciously. We recreated everything.”