Title sequence - Sin Nombre
Studio backing and awards at Sundance have seen Mexican immigrant-tale Sin Nombre become one of the most talked about upcoming films. Selina Robertson meets the director.
‘I have this weird thing that if I don’t do something that scares me then I feel that I have let myself down’ admits Sin Nombre’s writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga over morning coffee at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Tough words indeed from this 30-something young blood from San Francisco, who certainly has a reputation for doing more that just talk the talk. As part of his research plan for the film, he persuaded some friends to travel with him to Mexico in order to ride the freight trains that carry thousands of immigrants every day from Central America and Mexico towards the promise of a something better in the USA. The experiences that came out of his adventures, (which he ended up taking alone when his friends jumped ship), form one part of the film’s narrative. He says he doesn’t blame his friends, ‘All the people that we had met had been maimed, assaulted or raped on the trains. Not wanting to ride the trains is a very logical rational thing to do’.
Clearly Fukunaga thrives on a challenge. Sin Nombre (trans: Without Name) is shot in just 38 days, mostly in areas around Mexico City. The story unfolds as an epic dramatic thriller with hundred of extras, a crew had mostly been working on Apocalypto for eight months previously, trains, adverse weather conditions, nearly daily location changes, blood and other effects. All the classic ingredients of a western Fukunaga suggests, ‘not because I have studied western movies, but more because of the basic elements that are there, like the train bandits, poor immigrants that are crossing the countryside to get to a better land’. Even though big themes of lawlessness and bad guy turned good appear in the film, it’s the small pockets of daily life that he manages to so eloquently translate both visually and narratively, that make this film essential viewing in the cinema.
Working with trained and untrained actors who were cast out of Los Angeles, Honduras and Mexico, Fukuanaga weaves two stories together. The first involves Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a young Honduran woman who decides to join her father and uncle through Guatemala and Mexico to start a new life with relatives in New Jersey. The second involves Willy (Edgar Flores), otherwise known as Casper, a sensitive gang member from the south of Mexico, who is told to take new recruit Smiley under his wing and board a US-bound freight train by night in order to rob as many immigrants as possible. It is here that Sayra and Casper’s paths cross.
‘A lot of the little moments, such as how people drink the water, the conversations you have, what you do when you’re waiting,’ Fukunaga recounts, ‘enriched my perspective’. What about the immigrants’ apparent fatalism? ‘Whatever happens is in the hands of God’, he explains, ‘it’s faith more than fatalism’.
As well as a rivetingly authentic immigrant story, the film is also compelling in exploring the inner-workings of a real gang, called Mara Salvarucha. Originally from Los Angeles, the gang is composed of Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans. Rooted in a death metal, hard-core punk background, with an outstanding array of facial and bodily tattoos, the gang’s inside machinations are skilfully linked into the plot.
‘It was pretty academic’, Fukunaga tells, when asked about access, ‘I would go to the prisons, sit down with the social workers and we would select some of the gang members who would be most willing to talk. Some were active, some were not. The contacts I have are gone, I have no idea where they are’, he states.
Excellent casting clearly delivered on the gang roles. ‘Tenoch (Huerta Mejia, who plays Mara leader Lil’ Mago) is a natural leader and very charismatic, so in the gang scenes I would say to him, “You control your guys and you decide how things are going to happen”. That strengthened the dynamic on-screen’, Fukunaga explains. As for their facial tattoos, he admits to not knowing their exact origins but guesses that they come from American prison culture in the early 1980’s, ‘where the real hardening of the gangs took place. They took it to another level when they got out and tattoos were part of that. Fuck it all to get to another level’.
When the film premiered at Sundance in January, it won awards both for directing and cinematography. Brazilian director of photography Adriano Goldman, with a background in MTV filmmaking, under Fukunaga’s direction has successfully avoided the usual clichés of adrenaline-fuelled narrative filmmaking, opting for a more welcome, restrained, slower-paced natural shooting aesthetic. Rejecting the infamous Red digital camera, ‘on the Red it feels too instantaneous’, admits Fukunaga, for a more textured 35mm, the film’s exquisite long shots of Mexican landscapes lend themselves to the film’s horror and beauty.
‘A lot of my friends’ films are action adverse, but I have yet to make one like that. There is a desire in me to do a film that is all one take!’, he says ponderingly. This return to a more traditional style of filmmaking is undoubtedly a conscious decision on the director’s part to break away from ‘the over-stylised films of the late 1990’s, early 2000’s’.
With a second script already underway for Focus Features and another one with Universal, Fukunaga has certainly hit the ground running. ‘When I was writing the Sin Nombre script six years ago’ he laughs, ‘I did not think that it was going to be from a studio (Focus Features), but it couldn’t be better!’. Finally, what about the film’s name? Was there a discussion about changing it to an English translation? ‘I was against it. I felt it’s pretty easy to pronounce for non-Spanish speaking audiences and it sounds enigmatic enough. For those who do understand Spanish it is very relative to the title. Anyway, after a while they stopped asking me about it’, he says.
It is this incredibly confident, youthful resolve that seems to have landed Fukunaga right where he’s meant to be. Delivering a gripping socio-political Spanish language thriller for his first feature film. He discloses that his next project is once more foreign terrain. He is working on a musical, but without a chorus and dancing. ‘Imagine a Disney live action without the happing ending’. It is here that he again comes back to this thing of doing something that ‘tortures me’. Sorry for him, but hey more lucky for us.