Karen Martínez in Cadejo Blanco
Noni Ford discusses the role of missing girls and women in recent films like Cadejo Blanco, their connection to true crime, and more.
Sarita doesn’t seem like a person of grit. In the first few scenes of Justin Lerner’s Cadejo Blanco, we see her get cajoled into going to the club with her vivacious sister Bea, then she’s further prodded and poked by her sometimes boyfriend as she attempts to get home that same night. When Bea goes missing, her grandmother and her report it to the police, who seem infuriatingly blasé about it all and ask the family to report if she calls as their only real advice. So, when Sarita suddenly spurs into action to find Bea, we realize that she has reached some kind of breaking point in her life and this disappearance has caused her to finally take matters into her own hands instead of waiting on the whims of other people. She’s been confident before, like when rebuffing men on the dance floor at the club, and she clearly has personal boundaries, but to uncover the truth about her sister she must let all her boundaries fall to the wayside and risk her life.
The only lead she has on her sister is the boyfriend Bea mentioned the night she vanished, who is involved in gang activity and works at the club they went to. In a rather clumsy, but assertive, way she decides to engender herself to him in order to join up with his gang and investigate what has happened to her sister. This journey leads her down darker and darker paths, and we almost see her in some moments question her own limits. She knew this would be a dangerous gamble, but she still is surprised at the brutality she witnesses after only such a short time following the gang.
Bea’s depiction is quite interesting in the context of the story. She has garnered undying loyalty from Sarita and devotion from her boyfriend Andrés, and she is shown in brief scenes to be fun-loving, but in her last scene onscreen she is cruel to Sarita. In fact, their last conversation is a fight which Sarita leaves feeling obviously hurt. We don’t see as much of their background together, so at times, even though you understand the love of a sibling, you question Sarita’s quest and the risks she puts herself in to find answers. What actually gives us a peek into her mindset is another member of the gang, who remarks to her that nobody cares when any of them die because the people around them will just keep moving on with their lives. Sarita is fighting to find her sister, and tied into that is her fight to prove that her sister’s life, and her own, matters. That someone does love them and care for them, and I think that is what’s at the heart of this film; this young woman has been lost and that should matter to everyone.
Sarita by herself in Guatemala City
There’s been many missing women and girls throughout film history, and in recent years we’ve had such films as Lost Girls, Searching, and this year’s Missing. It’s a rather popular narrative for family members or close friends to decide to conduct their own intensive investigation believing that their love and dedication will carry them farther than the authorities will go. These are usually thrillers and sometimes take the tone of a revenge fantasy as the protagonist enacts vigilante justice on the perpetrators. Wrapped up into these stories is the idea that few people care if women disappear and the only way to get any sort of peace for these girls is to find it for yourself. The true-crime community, which was once more niche, has exploded in recent years as more podcasts, shows, and movies have begun producing more content on real or fictional crimes. More recently, there’s been some reckoning with the true-crime audience as reporting has shown that online sleuths have often misled investigations and unfairly prosecuted certain individuals in the court of public opinion before any direct evidence has come to light. Also, some have seen that with many of these fans they express a desire to help the family while re-victimizing them by recounting crimes against their family members with salacious details included. While all the above are completely fair criticisms, I think there is some nuance to be had.
A high percentage of missing persons cases do end up being solved in the US, but homicide cases have a higher rate of being unsolved. Certain content creators collaborate and communicate with the family of victims in order to establish more equitable coverage of the crimes they talk about. While not all families are receptive, I’m sure, for some it can be a relief to see that their cold cases are getting publicity and public interest. In the movies I detailed above, another throughline seems to be the fear that eventually people will just forget about the missing person entirely, a somewhat valid fear considering cold cases can be unsolved for decades. In Cadejo Blanco, our protagonist has to contend with the fact that Guatemala’s police system isn’t known for solving these kinds of crimes. Even as we scream at the screen for her to turn back or not get involved in different situations, we have to understand that there’s very little chance she’ll ever know anything if she doesn’t forge ahead. In an emotional scene near the end of the film, Sarita starts to lose her cool as she questions what really happened to her sister, the not knowing breaking through her usual mask of nonchalance.
Cultural understandings of how to deal with the commercialization of true crime may be an ongoing debate, but if there’s one thing we can take from movies like Missing and Cadejo Blanco it’s that for those we love, we would be willing to risk anything to save them. Sarita’s bravery can be seen by some as a naivete, or even a disguised suicide mission, but as we leave her in the final scenes, we understand that for better or worse she has found the truth — whether she can ever be at peace with the result of her journey is up to the viewer’s interpretation.
“Majority of Missing Persons Cases Are Resolved.” NPR, 7 May. 2023. Accessed 10 Sept. 2023. www.npr.org/2013/05/07/182000622/majority-of-missing-persons-cases-are-resolved.
“Unsolved Killings Terrorize Women.” Guatemala Human Rights Commission, 30 Mar. 2006, www.ghrc-usa.org/Resources/2006/UnsolvedMurdersTerrorizeWomen.htm. Accessed 10 Sept. 2023.
Westervelt, Eric. “More People Are Getting Away with Murder. Unsolved Killings Reach a Record High.” NPR, 30 Apr. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/04/29/1172775448/people-murder-unsolved-killings-record-high. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.