Last night I went to the pre-release screening of the movie Sin Nombre and had the opportunity to meet its writer and director, Cary Joji Fukunaga. The title, according to Fukunaga, comes from the myriad simple white crosses dotting the Mexican countryside that mark where nameless immigrants have died on the journey to el norte.
The film intertwines the stories of a young Mexican, Willy a.k.a "El Casper" (Edgar Flores), who is escaping from the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and a Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaytan) who is traveling north in search of the economic and social opportunities she has been denied in her impoverished homeland.
It is not an easy film to watch because it is a true-to-life portrayal of both the violence of the gangs and the appalling squalor of the immigrant squatter camps in the rail yards of Mexico. It is almost relentlessly brutal, even cruel, and the few simple acts of kindness (a gang leader cradling his baby daughter, the gift of a taco or a piece of fruit) shine like tiny jewels in an otherwise dark and desolate landscape.
Although the movie is a work of fiction, Fukunaga has invested a lot of effort and research to keep it real. He rode the tops of the trains, visited the shelters, camped out with the squatters, and befriended gang members. The gang members were enlisted to proof those dialogues and scenes to ensure that they sounded realistic.
Fukunaga made similar efforts with his actors, trying as much as possible to cast people of the same nationality as the characters they would be portraying to achieve authentic accents. I'm sure he has succeeded because, while I consider myself a fairly fluent Spanish speaker, the combination of accents and regional slang forced me to follow this film through the English subtitles like any other gringa.
The film brought to mind two experiences. The first was reading Enrique's Journey, the Pulitzer prize winning account of a young Honduran boy's quest to be reunited with his immigrant mother. Fukunaga says that he read that book but then tried to distance himself from it so he could make sure that he was telling his own story, but the basic elements of the train trip are similar in both accounts.
The second was the visit our MACC Mini Pastoral class made to a shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, in January. We talked with the predominantly Honduran guests at the shelter and heard similar harrowing tales. The shelter we visited was the Albergue Guadalupana. The fictionalized Reynosa shelter in Fukunaga's film is the Albergue de la Divina Providencia.
"Sin Nombre" is going to make a name for itself. It is a powerful, authentic, and moving story of what our immigrant brothers and sisters will go through to find a better life. Because of the violence, I cannot recommend this film for anyone under 16. The mind shudders at the thought of teenagers leaving the cinema and mindlessly flashing the MS gang signals they have picked up from this movie. For everyone else: Do go, but be prepared to have your hearts broken by a film that will stay with you long after the credits have finished scrolling.