TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Seldom do I see a film that reverberates with me, down to the core. Burros, a breathtaking short piece of cinematic art written and directed by Jefferson Stein, is one such title. Set in southeastern Arizona on the Tohono O’odham Nation, a reservation the size of Connecticut whose boundaries cross the U.S.A. and Mexico, with the border cutting it up the middle. Elsa (Amaya Juan) is a 6-year-old native whose father, Joe (Rupert Lopez), has to leave for work helping the Border Patrol. Unfortunately, Gagi (Virginia Patricio), her grandmother, who usually watches Elsa, is unavailable to do so today. As such, Joe tells his daughter to stay put while he is gone. So naturally, Elsa runs off into the desert with her dog after he leaves.
While hitting an old can with her Toka stick (an awesome desert version of hockey that’s women only), she comes across Ena (Zuemmy Carrillo). This 6-year-old Mexican girl is hiding in a cactus. Elsa gets her a cup of water and tries to speak to her in O’odham and English. Ena understands neither and replies in Spanish that she was crossing the border with her father and got lost. Elsa does not speak nor understands Spanish. Not comprehending Ena’s situation or having a verbal way to communicate, Elsa decides Ena is her new best friend and takes her over to the food truck to get burros (burritos) from Mondo (Armondo “Mondo” Gonzalez). Elsa lets Mondo know she has no money, but they are starving, so the girls go off with a free tortilla each. From here on out, the drama follows the carefree girls’ day until the, unfortunately, all-too-realistic conclusion.
“…Elsa decides Ena is her new best friend and takes her over to the food truck to get burros…”
Burros begins with us overhearing a conversation in O’odham. From there all the way to the final shot, Stein employs a lean storytelling style that allows small details to resonate and propel the story along very well with little exposition. The stunning cinematography, by Cole Graham, captures the amazing texture of the ancestral land the Tohono O’odham have held for centuries, as well as framing some magnificent images rich in symbolism. One unforgettable shot sees the two girls sitting on an army tank, eating their food while watching two native teens beatbox.
The performances by the two lead girls are wonderful, as they share believable chemistry for folks unable to communicate verbally. The drama is the first acting credit for both Amaya Juan and Zuemmy Carrillo, and they show the poise of much more seasoned professionals, even at such a young age. Carrillo auditioned through her Tucson area school, and Juan was found at a Toka match. Both should be very proud of their contributions. Virginia Patricio, as Gagi, is a force of nature. She reminds me of a lot of the Tohono O’odham elder women I have met at rodeos. She also co-wrote the song she sings to Ena at the end of the film.
Burros means a lot to me as my family lives in Tucson, right next to the nation. My wife teaches at an alternative high school for Tohono O’odham students, where the kids are taught the Himdag, which is the traditional Tohono O’odham culture. One of her classes is on the representation of indigenous North Americans in film, and her students would be very excited to see this. The dramatic short is an excellent representation of both the Tohono O’odham nation and Jefferson Stein’s talent.
Burros screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
"…the two lead girls are wonderful..."