Fresh out of college, filmmaker/director Elias Hinojosa found inspiration in his grandmother to make his first professional movie. Doña Dora Muñoz had recently lost her husband and the young filmmaker was concerned about her mental health. Hoping to use his craft as a sort of family therapy, Hinojosa recruited his septuagenarian abuelita to star in a short film to help others deal with mourning.

“Widow” tells the story of a grieving elderly woman dealing with the loss of her lifelong partner. The experimental fantasy drama recently screened at Los Angeles’s Believe Psychology Film Festival after winning two awards at LA’s IndieX Film Festival, for Best Fantasy Short and in the category of Outstanding Achievement. 

Mental illness is still too often viewed as a taboo topic among Latinos as well as many others, making it difficult for individuals to talk about it at home or among friends and often even harder to receive professional help. 

So, Hinojosa, a Texas native who is now a resident of Encino, wanted to use his first film to shine light on the subject and diminish its stigma. “Film is the only therapy I know [how to offer],” said the 25-year-old filmmaker/director.

The short film became a family affair. The central character was named Dora after his grandmother and they shot the film at his grandma’s home in the border town of Roma, Texas. 

Dora Muñoz, actress of ‘Widow.’ Photo courtesy of Hinojosa

“That is the house where she raised her family with my grandfather,” said Hinojosa. The filmmaker/director’s mother, Lucy Muñoz-Ramirez, was even cast as a younger Dora and her current husband, Servando Ramirez, played Dora’s younger spouse. Throughout the production, Grandma Dora was consulted on her experience to help develop the story.

Doña Dora had fun making the movie.  

“We were able to fill her home up with lights and joy and youth, with all of my crew fresh out of college,” said Hinojosa, a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied radio, TV and film. “We wanted to make something really special and unique.” He describes “Widow” as a “hybrid docu-narrative” that combines his grandmother’s experience with surrealism, including flashbacks to Dora’s youthful wedding.

Hinojosa reveals that his abuela faced mental illness throughout her life. “She struggled with mania, being bipolar, suffering from deep depression,” he said. “She’s been through a lot. She had two miscarriages in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, which affected her deeply.” The ease with which Hinojosa talks about mental illness in his family may be rooted in his grandfather’s attitude toward the topic. “Luckily, my grandpa Genaro Muñoz Jr. didn’t hold onto the machismo of our [Latino] culture and was able to get her [my grandmother] a good psychiatrist to help her with her issues.” 

When his abuelo died a few years ago, Hinojosa tried to figure out a way to help his granny with her mourning. He adds that many elderly people lose their loved ones and partners in life but often don’t have families to fall back on and to help them with the mourning process.

“I just wanted to make sure that his passing wouldn’t lead her into depression,” he says, adding that he speaks to her once or twice a day.

“Widow” was his answer.

“As a filmmaker, I wanted to give my grandmother this creative cathartic experience in which she would be able to examine her life and process her grief in a healthy creative way,” says the filmmaker. “I wanted her to step outside herself and view her situation in the third person, and ultimately heal some of the wounds that she carried around with her for most of her life.”

“Widow” screened at the Crossroads Film Festival in Brownsville, Texas, where Doña Dora walked the red carpet, was interviewed and received congratulations for her performance. “It was a wonderful experience,” Hinojosa recalls.

The San Fernando Valley has been the Texan’s new adoptive home since before the pandemic. He came here for a semester at UTLA in Burbank, a campus of the University of Texas, and made Encino his residence. He took a few light courses that, he said with pride, allowed him to work with the founder of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye.

As the pandemic brought Hollywood to a halt, Hinojosa went back to the Lone Star State but kept his Encino apartment. “I was still paying the rent not knowing when everything would be over,” he said. As soon as the nation reopened, the filmmaker came back to the San Fernando Valley.

Now coming off a personal short about a serious subject, Hinojosa said his next film will be lighter, humorous, avant-garde and made guerrilla-style. The still-untitled project will be a collaboration with director Jessica Sanders, who won the Oscar for the documentary short “Sing” in 2002. Slated to start shooting this July, Hinojosa says the film is inspired by the works of John Waters, who directed the cult movies “Hairspray” and “Serial Mom.” 

“It’s a very unique approach to storytelling,” he says. “The film is unscripted. We will first identify interesting characters and locations and build the story around that.” He adds that the scenes will be “constructed using bold improvisational choices, moments made of pure wit, spontaneity and creative collaborations, combining unique locations with one-of-a-kind characters.”

Some of those scenes will be filmed in the valley.  “We’ll be utilizing every corner of Los Angeles, especially the valley,” says Hinojosa. “I love living in the San Fernando Valley because I come from the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas; so, from one valley to the next, I’m gonna make this valley my playground.”