June 11, 2009

Sin Nombre: Of gangs and immigrants

This masterpiece of potential interest to forensic folks has it all -- great acting, beautiful cinematography, powerful themes, and amazing realism. The realism is no accident. Young filmmaker Cary Fukunaga spent months in Mexico, interviewing both immigrants and gang members about their experiences. He shot on location, and many cast members are nonprofessionals. For example, Edgar Flores, in the lead role as a member of the Chiapas chapter of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, is straight off the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Despite the specific setting of the tumultuous U.S.-Mexico border, Sin Nombre addresses powerful and universal themes of damnation and redemption. At least, that's how I saw it. In an interview, Fukunaga himself said he sees it as being about family -- "the disintegration and recreation of the family unit in its unique and varying forms."

The plot centers around a chance and fateful encounter between Willy and a 15-year-old Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is riding north atop a train. Through Sayra's journey, viewers get an appreciation for the intense dangers faced by Central Americans trekking toward the promised land.

Without giving away anything, I can give you a bit of background. Fukunaga, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, was in film school in New York when he saw a New York Times story about a group of Mexican and Central American immigrants who died of asphyxiation and heat exhaustion while trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. (Remember that incident? It was front-page news a few years ago.) His short 2004 documentary about that case, Victoria Para Chino, won multiple film awards.

That project evolved into Sin Nombre, as Fukunaga explained in an IndieWire interview. Doing the research, he said, "I learned about the awful journey Central American immigrants went through in order to get to the United States -- crossing the infinitely more dangerous badlands of Mexico on top of (not in) freight trains bound for the US Border. It was like a world that belonged to the old Wild West."

Against the advice of friends, Fukunaga gained intimacy with his topic by taking the same harrowing train-top ride that he would film. (Folks cling to the top of the train rather than riding inside the box cars, because the cars are even more dangerous due to rapists and other criminals.) On his first ride, with 700 Central American immigrants, the train was attacked within three hours:

"We were somewhere in the pitch black regions of the Chiapan countryside. In the alcove of the next train car I heard the distinct pops of gunshots, always louder than they seem in the movies, then the screams of immigrants passing the word: 'Pandillas! Pandillas!' (gangsters). Everyone scattered, I could hear them running past our tanker car. Not having anywhere to run to, I stayed on…. The next day I talked to two Hondurans who were next to the attack. They told me a Guatemalan immigrant didn't want to give two bandits his money so they shot him and threw him under the train. [Later] I learned the police had found the body of a Guatemalan immigrant, shot and abandoned…. Nothing could have driven home the sensation of fear and impotence more than what I had felt firsthand with those immigrants."

Fukunaga's willingness and ability to see through the eyes of others probably owes much to his upbringing. (As Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor put it in her controversial speech, this DOES influence one's perspective!) Fukunaga is described in a Los Angeles Times article as "a wandering spirit with a Japanese father, a Swedish mother, a Chicano stepdad and an Argentine stepmom [who] can't be reduced to the sum of his parts, ethnic or otherwise. Growing up, he shuffled from the suburbs to the country to the barrio ('Crips and Bloods, people getting shot') to the East Bay's hillside bourgeois enclaves. His family, he says, always has been a 'conglomeration of individual, sort of displaced people,' recombinations of relatives and step-relatives, blood kin and surrogate kin, parents and what he calls "pseudo-parents" who treated him like a son."

With this background, Fukunaga was able to capture not only the immigrant experience, but the pathos of gang life in Central America and Mexico, with brutality and hopelessness transmitted from generation to generation. Sin Nombre doesn't give the history or context for the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which at 100,000-strong is widely considered one of the most fastest-growing and dangerous gangs in the world.

In brief, the MS-13 is an outgrowth of the 1980s war in El Salvador, which led to a massive migration of up to two million refugees into the United States. Many settled in the Ramparts area of Los Angeles, where the gang was founded. Strict U.S. immigration policies in more recent years have paradoxically worsened the gang problem, allowing the MS-13 to gain footholds in Central America and Mexico. The MS-13 is known for its vivid tattoos, but some say members are moving away from tattoos because they so brilliantly illuminate gang membership for authorities. A documentary on the MS-13, Hijos de la Guerra (Children of the War), can be previewed HERE. A marvelous Los Angeles Times photojournalism project on the gang is HERE.

Sin Nombre is getting widespread acclaim, and richly deserves the directing and cinematography awards it garnered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It's in Spanish with English subtitles, but don't let that stop you.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was good to see a well-made movie made on this subject, which seems to have escaped notice of most of the mainstream media. A good book about train travel through Mexico by Central American immigrants is Vicente's Journey, which chronicles the trip of a young man traveling through Mexico to reunite with his mother. The author accompanied Vicente through part of the journey (but not the most dangerous parts), somehow getting permission from Mexican authorities to do so. The descriptions and photos of the immigrants' experience on this well-traveled journey corresponded closely to what was described to me by a young Central American man who made it.