First, there’s the sheer physical endurance and hazards of travelling across Mexico on the top of trains. As if that’s not enough, there’s also robbery, kidnapping, physical and sexual assaults, and other threats.
Watch the trailer for Sin Nombre.
Countless Central American migrants undertake this perilous journey in search of a better life in the United States. It’s also one that writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga underwent himself to research this subject. Twice he rode trains with up to 700 migrants as they made their way from the Guatemalan border across Mexico’s Chiapas state toward the U.S.
The results of Fukunaga’s efforts can be seen in his debut feature, Sin Nombre. The gritty Spanish-language drama (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [April 17]) follows a young Honduran migrant, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), travelling with her family to the United States, who becomes entwined with a teenage Mexican gangster, El Casper (Edgar M. Flores), on the run from his former associates.
The hardships and rough conditions that the migrants must endure are detailed throughout the film. Although in one scene Mexicans assist the travellers by tossing them fruit to eat, in another scene kids hurl rocks and curses at them. “Oftentimes immigrants are very poorly treated,” the New York City–based Fukunaga explains by phone from Los Angeles. “Just last year, there was a case where the police were indicted for having kidnapped 100 immigrants and were holding them for ransom to their families in the United States.”
Fukunaga’s previous effort, “Victoria Para Chino”, was a short film based on a May 2003 incident in which a driver abandoned a truckload of immigrants, dying of heat exhaustion, in Victoria, Texas. After the short screened at Sundance 2005, he was invited to develop his feature at Sundance Labs (which won the 2009 Sundance Film Festival directing and cinematography awards in January).
“What I learned in the writing labs and directing labs,” he says, “was pretty amazing in terms of not just how to apply it to the story”¦but just about this choice of lifestyle, how that affects who you are”¦and just share that through anecdotes with a lot of writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, producers, and whatnot who I really respect and grew up watching their work. And suddenly feeling like I was part of that, that I was actually a real filmmaker.”
Fukunaga chose the subject matter because he wanted to capture the concerns of this time period for posterity. He felt it was important to show “the human side of it [immigration issues] so that in future years, when it becomes an academic study, you have films like this that stand as a testimony to the people who actually participated in it and helped give it—breathed into it—a certain kind of life that would normally only exist in a very cold sort of sphere, like in a journalistic or documented historical way. This gives it a little more humanity to it. In that way, that was a goal in the film. It wasn’t just for the audience now but for audiences in the future as well.”
As yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) and hapa (interracial), Fukunaga would eventually like to address a social injustice that affected his father’s family: the Japanese American internment (which he wrote a thesis about). “The majority of the population that were imprisoned were American citizens. Their rights were taken away from them without any due process. It was a great failure in the Constitution that has yet to be investigated on an epic level.”