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Senoritas, directed by Lina Rodriguez, follows Alejandra (Maria Serrano) as she navigates her public and private personas.

With Senoritas, TIFF Bell Lightbox provides a showcase for one of its own. The debut film was made by TIFF's Colombian-born communications manager Lina Rodriguez, and was produced by her partner, TIFF programmer Brad Deane. Senoritas has already screened at Colombia's Cartagena Film Festival and in New York as part of the Latinbeat program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Made on a modest $60,000 budget, Rodriguez's film treatment was based on research with models, students and single mothers in Colombia, as well as her cast of professional and non-professional actors. Partly inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, it's as much an intriguing cinéma-vérité social study as a coming-of-age drama.

The story follows one middle-class girl, Alejandra (Maria Serrano), along with her circle of male and female friends, over the summer break. Alejandra is modern, without responsibilities and sexually independent, but her freedom is relative. Shot in a series of deliberately extended takes, Senoritas is very much about the act of watching and being watched. One scene involves Alejandra primping in front of the mirror before a night out, while her mother (played by Rodriguez's mother, Clara Monroy) tries to make her drink some juice. The film's most striking sequence shows a full eight minutes of Alejandra nervously walking at night, an experience with which women in any culture can identify.

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This interview took place by e-mail, the day after Rodriguez returned from Bogota, where she is beginning casting on her next film.

You left Colombia in 1999 when you were 18, on the cusp of adulthood, like Alejandra and her friends, and you've now lived almost as many years in a different culture. How do you compare your experience as a senorita to that of contemporary Colombian young women?

Part of the reason I wanted to make the film was to explore this very question, which is why it was very clear to me that I wanted to be open to the stories and experiences of the women I encountered during my research, as well as during the casting and shooting processes. The film stemmed from my own experiences as a young woman both in Bogota and Toronto and it was nurtured and enriched by the very process of making the film. I feel that there's not a huge difference in how young women today are navigating Bogota from my time there, as our quest to define who we are, and how we negotiate the expectations that men, our families, friends and the places we inhabit have of us, is an ongoing question.

Were you consciously exploring the issues of gender and watching?

I'm definitely interested in how our postures (how we move, how we behave, how we inhabit spaces) as human beings are shaped by how we are seen and perceived by others. With Senoritas, I was particularly interested in creating a contrast between the tension and relationship that exists in Alejandra's public life (her life in front of others, with others, for others) and her private life, and this indeed has to do with how she is perceived by men and how she moves around them.

The extended night-walking scene, and the holiday scene when the boys play a disturbing game, remind us of how much these women's lives are shaped by the threat of male aggression. When you think of young women like Alejandra and what they face in this world, do you feel angry, protective, or something else?

Sometimes I indeed feel angry, especially within the Colombian context given that I grew up with very limited representations of women that came from soap operas and beauty pageants, so part of my intention with Senoritas was to offer a different way to represent a young woman's search for an authentic identity that was closer to me. This is why for the character of Alejandra, I needed a young woman that could, in a way, fit easily in her surroundings, but that at the same time had an obvious anxiety and curiosity to explore new things and challenge the expectations around her.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

Senoritas begins a limited run on Friday at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).

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