When filmmaker Silvia Del Carmen Castaños was younger, they’d make frequent walks across the Texas-Mexico border to visit their grandmother’s house in Mexico. Castaños grew up in Laredo, TX, a city lying along the border. They moved to Boston in July 2021, but their memories of Laredo remain preserved in their debut feature film, “Hummingbirds.” The film, a tender yet headstrong documentary, brings audiences into the lives of them and their best friend, Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, as teenagers running amok, engaging in shenanigans in Laredo.
Before Castaños was a filmmaker, they were a poet. Their first film, “Ocean,” which they made their senior year of high school while attending their school’s filmmaking club, was based on a poem of theirs of the same title. The short film was about a relationship they were in, acting as a “recreation of that relationship with a voiceover of this poem,” Castaños describes.
The short film screened at the Laredo International Media & Film Festival in 2017. It won a documentary jury prize and attracted the attention of Jilian Schlesinger, a film producer who has continued to work with Castaños.
That following year, Castaños began creating their second film and debut feature, “Hummingbirds.”
While “Hummingbirds” romps in the delightful nostalgia of golden-hour teendom, it also touches upon topics of controversy such as immigration and abortion. These aspects are incorporated into the film simply as elements of Castaños’ and Contreras’ lives, rather than determinants of their identity.
Castaños says they value “the idea of how radical being normal can be.” They are not defined by their gender, their sexuality, their ethnicity, or their past, but exist in the wonderful realm of these identities.
Their documentary is “kind of like a 70-minute long selfie,” describes Castaños.
The film has been in the works for nearly six years. Castaños and Contreras – the film’s co-director and co-star – began pre-production in 2018, filmed in the summer of 2019 and started releasing the film at various film festivals in 2023. Those years acted as a period of growth for Castaños as a filmmaker. With each new acceptance to a fellowship and each grant received, their career in film and the legitimacy of “Hummingbirds” became increasingly palpable.
“When we started, it didn’t feel professional,” they recall. “But then I remember getting our first grant, then getting a grant from Sundance immediately after and being like ‘Oh shit, people are taking us seriously, this is gonna be an actual thing.’”
Castaños has been involved in a number of film scholarships, grants, retreats, and fellowships such as Sundance Latine, a program launched in 2022 to encourage Latine representation in independent film; Film Fatales, a non-profit advocating for the voices of women and non-binary people in film; and Firelight Media, a fellowship working with non-fiction filmmakers of color.
Much of Castaños interest in film – and art in general – lies in personal non-fiction. Both “Ocean” and “Hummingbirds,” are documentaries about their own experiences, and Castaños’ third film in the works is set to be based on their life as well.
“A lot of the films I like are by people who make films about themselves,” they say.
Castaños’ predilection for personal narratives means their films often shed personal bounds and bare their vulnerabilities to audiences. The six-year-long process of creating “Hummingbirds” allowed Castaños to come to terms with this daunting task. As they were transitioning between adolescence and adulthood within the timespan of “Hummingbirds,” their perspective on their film and its medium ebbed and flowed.
Castaños first tried separating their present self from their younger self while working on the film, prompted by advice prioritizing narrative distance. This tactic, they remember, caused them to neglect themselves and their experiences, however.
“It became this idea of censoring yourself,” they recall.
Instead, they doubled down on self-reflection, swinging the pendulum into a fear of the unabashed experiences they were translating into film.
“They’re gonna watch me, they’re gonna know we’re gay, that’s gonna be out to the whole world,” they remember fearing.
Yet, after even more deliberating, Castaños acknowledged that truth was the heart of this film, and anything less than complete candor would be lackluster.
“Okay, let’s be real, that is us. And we have to come to terms with that,” Castaños remembers discussing with Contreras, “We were teenagers, we were cringey, we were annoying. People are going to see this film, and that’s right there.”
Castaños valued this process of self-cogitation, as confounding and uncomfortable as it may have been. They say they view the act of creating and sharing as a method of healing.
“Most of the things that have led my films have been poetry – Hummingbirds is very poetry-heavy – and showing myself in a very real and comfortable way is like healing from those things,” Castaños explains.
More than their personal purpose of making art, Castaños also hopes to share a message through “Hummingbirds.” Growing up in a border town, they have witnessed the simultaneous militarization of the border and demonization of its residents. Through their film, they hope to dismantle connotations of danger and instability they often found in conversations with the border.
“I hate that the news villainizes us, that movies villanize us, that people associate this area with just poor, poor things,” they express. “And that was something we wanted to make sure wasn’t the case.”
“Hummingbirds,” Castaños claims, is essentially “for other border kids, other queers.”
This pursuit of community has come through to its audiences. At a screening of the film in Baltimore, a man approached Castaños after the film and, through tears, shared the personal importance of the film and its depiction of LGBTQ+ existence and acceptance.
“He just found out he was gay recently, and watching the film made him feel healed because we are now in a generation where people like him won’t have the problem of finding out you’re gay until you’re in your fifties,” Castaños recalls.
Castaños and the “Hummingbirds” crew are currently involved in the film’s distribution. Dates for upcoming screenings of the film can be found on the film’s Instagram, @hummingbirdspelicula.
The film premiered globally at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 21, 2023, where it won the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury for the Best Film, a category celebrating the works of young filmmakers. In March, the film had its U.S. premiere at True/False Film Festival. The film has also screened at a number of other festivals, including the San Francisco Film Festival, Sheffield DocFest, and, last month, NewFest’s 35th LBGTQ+ Film Festival.
While still involved in the distribution of “Hummingbirds,” Castaños is beginning to work on their third film. It will focus on their relationship with their mother, looking at “what immigration does to family members and how that affects their relationship,” they explain.
Although Castaños is now half a country away from their hometown, it will never cease to be present in their life and art.
“[Laredo] is always gonna be a part of my writing and filmmaking,” they state.” I think everything I do and am will always radiate Laredo.”