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Sin Nombre/Interview with Cary Fukunaga

Most films that deal with border issues focus on immigrants and immigration along the California or Texas state lines. But the new film "Sin Nombre" (opening April 3 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) shows us how people living deeper in Mexico and Central America get to that border. The film played last month at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and just about everyone I spoke to at the fest was recommending it. I spoke with first time feature filmmaker Cary Fukunaga at the festival just before he presented the film to a full house.

Cary Fukunaga has learned a lot about journeys, like the long strange trip that brought him to last month's San Diego Latino Film Festival where he screened "Sin Nombre." That film took five years to make. He stumbled on the idea for his first feature while making a short film at New York University about immigration.

CARY FUKUNAGA: "That's where I first learned about immigrants riding on top of these freight trains crossing Mexico and having to face dangers that were much more violent and perilous than what I had thought was dangerous, which was the U.S. Mexican border."

"Sin Nombre" tells the story of two very different people fleeing to America for diverse reasons. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a Honduran teenage girl fleeing poverty and hoping to hook up with family in New Jersey. El Casper (Edgar Flores) is a Mexican teen trying to escape his gang life.

CARY FUKUNAGA: "I just wanted to focus on the hardships of the journey and what happens to people on this journey and if two people from very different points cross in a way that I don't want to say that it's fate whatever it is that makes them cross how that makes them change their own personal journey and how it changes what they would have expected that journey might be."

Sayra and El Casper form an unlikely friendship. Despite his youth, El Casper exhibits the doomed fatalism of someone who's seen too much and lived too long. She, on the other hand, reveals confidence, maybe that's because a psychic told her that she would make it to America "not in the hands of God but in the hands of the devil." El Casper is that devil but Fukunaga puts a human face on him. He wants us to understand him within the context of his violenbt environment. "Sin Nombre" translates as "Without Name" and Fukunaga wants his film to put a name to all the hundreds and thousands of people like El Casper who are trying to find a better life by coming to America.

CARY FUKUNAGA: "I hope that when the film gets out there to audiences is able to accomplish what I set out with the short film which is to put audiences in that seat of experience so that even if they are so far away from that experience of these characters these immigrants from central America crossing Mexico these gang members they will be able to have this sense of empathy for them for people that are often times just headlines in the newspaper."

Fukunaga was very conscious of coming to this story as an outsider. But he says that point of view allowed him to see things more keenly.

CARY FUKUNAGA: "You notice things differently and are able to write about it from a sort of distant perspective which is necessary to write about things objectively than I think you have to do the work of getting the culture and infuse the nuances of the culture and little details that create the world not just visually and with sound but down to the very smells of that space every little thing adds to the realism of it."

To get that realism, Fukunaga made seven research trips through Mexico and Central America, riding the trains with immigrants and gathering their stories. He also met with gang members. The resulting film hits some familiar ground but with a fresh sense of detail. He also wanted to find a more innovative visual style, one that avoided the current trend of shaky handheld camerawork.

CARY FUKUNAGA: "My goal was to do none of that I wanted to be as naturalistic as possible with the treatment of the film and to sort of visually treat it like photojournalism and photojournalism of a specific era which I would say is 1980s."

So there are times when a single shot defines an entire scene. Fukunaga avoids frenetic visual clichés but still packs his film with vibrancy and energy. He also has a clear, sharp eye for capturing the details of life far south of the border. As the train travels its course, some people offer the travelers food and comfort while others throw stones and hurl insults. But throughout Fukunaga reveals the poverty and hardship impacting people's lives. "Sin Nombre," like "The Visitor" last year, does not make any political argument in regards to immigration. But both films do take the position that everyone, even those who seem nameless, be treated with some measure of humanity.

Companion viewing: "El Norte," "City of God," "The Visitor"

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