Hundreds of people fleeing poverty in Central America perched on top of a train travel across Mexico, where they are subject to harassment by authorities, hustlers and thugs.
For those who saw Sin nombre (2009), the film by Bay Area’s Cary Fukunaga on the same subject, La jaula de oro [The Golden Dream] has a grittier look and feel — muted, with less artifice. It is a masterpiece; a very well rounded film that follows, from beginning to end and in detail, the precarious journey of four teenagers who leave Guatemala to come to the USA. Harsh and emotional, it concentrates on the feelings of helplessness, jealousy at times, and overall camaraderie that springs up between them.
The film premiered in Cannes, France, and won 81 awards, including nine Ariel, Mexico’s Oscars. It is the first film by Diego Quemada-Díez, who made two shorts before, I want to be a pilot (2006), about a child in Kenya, and La Morena (2006), on prostitution in Mazatlan, Mexico .
We talked with Quemada-Díez about immigration and borders, his creative process, the complicated world of distribution, and his new project; just a few days before the premiere of his film in San Francisco.
La jaula de oro opens Friday Jan. 29 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Hours and tickets: http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/la-jaula-de-oro-the-golden-dream/?instance_id=10369
How did you come up with the idea of making La jaula de oro?
I was in Mazatlan making a documentary, La morena, where I met a taxi driver with whom we became friends and he invited me to go with his family. They lived by the railroad tracks and, every day, the train arrived with migrants. We gave them tortillas, food, water and they told us about their problems, their ordeals, their suffering. Many came barefoot, without anything, looking for a place to rest and bathe. And there, under a tree or in the house, they told us about their dreams, their whereabouts on the trip, the abuses they got from the authorities, the realities of their countries… They talked about how politicians in their countries live very well while they live very badly. That there was so much violence, extortion and poverty that they would rather die in trying to make a better life for their families. They make the journey to help their families, that’s the only reason. Their countries, including Mexico and Central America, is refusing to let them get an opportunity for a better life. So they leave looking for one.
And that’s when migrants collide with borders…
The ‘civilized’ world responds by putting up walls, imprisoning and criminalizing immigrants, militarizing borders. With my film I wanted to bring up the idea that the solution is not repressing immigrants but it involves the generation of circumstances that do not force people to migrate. If the rules of international trade are controlled by the US and Europe — condemning the South to import goods and never develop its own domestic production, its stability and internal peace and social policies — people will flee.
Authorities in both the North and the South are creating the circumstances for people to migrate. And then they put up walls. It is a great hypocrisy. We ought to create conditions of fair trade. The free trade agreements —that we are told are inevitable and wonderful — are destroying the welfare of many people. It is crystal clear in Mexico: After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed more than 12 million people fled. It was virtually automatic, the agricultural fields are empty.
The issue of immigration and border is current here in San Francisco. Today there were actions protesting new immigration raids.
When I lived in the US, all those raids angered me so much. They told us how they’d knocked down the door of the house at 7 a.m. as if they were Robocops, dressed in military uniforms, chaining and taking them away… a horrible thing. Several children told me how immigration ICE agents would beat them to make them sign what they call a ‘voluntary departure’ from the US, so that if you come back, you are a criminal on paper and they can put you in jail if they want. The last figures I remember from when I was doing my film in 2010 was that there were 500,000 migrants imprisoned, whose only crime was crossing a line. There are detention centers across the US, some look like concentration camps, it is very impressive.
I wanted to show all this in the film, but in the end I did not because it would have been too long. I included in section that takes place in the US, short but strong, to say what I think needs to be said: the migrant arrives in the US and lives a very harsh loneliness, being far from his or her culture and family, in a hostile environment that is not welcoming, where he works and works; making ten times more money, but also paying ten times more for the bills. The migrant becomes a slave in the production chain.
You built the script using the interviews you did to migrants.
I spent approximately 7 years collecting testimonies from migrants in different parts of their trip: in shelters, jails, deportation centers… of Guatemala, Mexico and the US. And from all these testimonies I built a fictional narrative.
A narrative that, rather than sadness, focuses on camaraderie and love.
Had it been a pure collection of testimonies, the truth is that the film would have been very harsh. What I did is condense all the testimonies into a group of four children and speak about migration through them. And then I thought of talking through the story about the conflict between a mestizo, who believes in the development model and the American dream, and an indígena who has another way of seeing the world, another cosmogony. Through the clash of these two characters, there is tremendous racism among them, and through the story of their trip together, I made the mestizo change through the indígena and not the other way around.
The indigenous character represents the spiritual realm to which we all the potential to access. He represents the teacher, the person who can help us connect with our most evolved part. Chauk’s character is the soul while Juan’s is the mind, individualism, materialism. And through the clash that occurs between them because of the female character — an open, highly intelligent, woman artist — transformation occurs.
On the one hand you have the outer journey on an immigration and political context, and on the other the inner journey of the hero, who has a goal and many obstacles, and who has a teacher, Chauk, who helps him along the way. And through that journey of initiation he enters a learning process.
With the structure of the script I tried to focus on what we learn from this harsh trip that migrants make — an extreme journey where they face death at all times.
La jaula de oro is a narrative film with a documentary style. How do you shoot?
As a movie buff and after participating in the production of 26 films besides mine, with which I made my living and I learned, I observed various methods of filmmaking. So I created my own method that I used in La jaula de oro. Much I learned from Ken Loach on the set of Land and Freedom and in the other two films in which I worked with him. Loach is a great teacher. He taught me to shoot in chronological order, without the actors knowing the story, so that every day they have to find out what is going to happen next. They do not act, but rather live an experience. As a director what I do is watch them and film it. You care about creating the context causing their behavior, but you let them be themselves and behave their way in the scenes. I’d read them the scene five minutes before and ask them, ‘How would you say this?’ And right on the spot I’d rewrite the dialogue and include some improvisation when possible.
I also try to always shoot from eye level, the height of a human being, considering that the viewer is a human being who is always present, observing, living the experience of each scene attached to the characters.
From my experience with Michael Winterbottom on In This World I took the idea of hiring people we met along the way in the villages. A casting team traveled three or four days ahead of us, so that by the time we arrived at a village we already had casting sessions set up and we would incorporate them in the production. And the same with migrants: along the way we incorporated real migrants that were en route to the US.
On the one hand the idea was to film the fictional narrative in the script, and on the other to incorporate the reality that you run into and that you shoot in documentary way.
How did you select the actors for the lead roles?
I saw 6,000 children. I spent about 8 months casting with several teams and with the support of local organizations. And so these wonderful kids came up. You look for people who have a special spark, who fit the script but who also contribute with something, with a powerful stare… In our case we wanted a racial contrast between the characters of Juan and Chauk. When Brandon came I liked him: fair-skinned, not with a victim’s face but driven, a little aggressive, a leader but also very selfish boy, but with a big heart, fragile and very good person… A character with many contradictions. You look for characters with contradictions that make them interesting to be looked at.
And then we did a workshop with the actors. I had worked with Fernando Meirelles on City of God, who worked with Fátima Toledo. I contacted her because she had worked a lot with children. Her method was very physical. I do not like intellectual performances. So before starting to shoot we did a workshop with Fátima and the actors for about a month: fun games to get used to the camera, gaze at each other comfortably, build confidence in themselves, make a commitment to the film… And the truth is that it worked very well.
It has taken more than two years for your film to make it here to San Francisco…
Yes, we premiered in Cannes, France, in May 2013. The commercial release in Mexico was a year later and in the US in June 2015. It has been very difficult to show the film in the United States, nobody wanted to distribute it.
Because of the topic? Or why do you think it is?
Besides the subject and the end of the film bothering them, I think, the sales agent sold the film to HBO first, which upfront killed the interest of any potential distributor. A distributor tries to buy all the windows when purchasing a title. They know that theaters won’t generate much money, but rather television and some with the DVD, iTunes… So they want it all, and La jaula de oro had already sold the TV rights to HBO, which can yield some $50,000 to $60,000, money that is no longer available for them… After all, we decided to do the US distribution ourselves independently. We got the sales agent to give us back some of the territory and we have managing it ourselves. It has been a lot of work but a learning process.
Where has La jaula de oro been shown in the US?
Through a ‘theatrical distributor’ we made bookings in theaters. The film screened two weeks in Los Angeles, and one in San Diego, New York and Washington DC. And right now I’m happy that it will show in San Francisco. I love it. It has been a very limited distribution that we paid for ourselves with almost $30,000, but in the end it has been a very positive investment because it has allowed us to own the rights to screening platforms that usually the distributor keeps, specially iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. Hopefully people will see the film that way and we will get some income that way. It’s hard…, so many years that you spent working on a film and often it is the middlemen who make the most money!
And despite the many awards La jaula de oro got…
Yes, 81 awards, one of the most awarded films in a long time. It is not the reason why you make a film but it helps to get the word out. I would have liked to reach bigger audiences, but hey, it has not fared badly. Here in Mexico we were the sixth highest grossing film of 2014 with over 300,000 spectators, and in France we had more than 130,000. It premiered in Colombia, Brazil, Spain, England… in over 40 countries. I am happy.
Are you working on a new film?
It’s amazing, I’ve spent more than two years on promotional trips for La jaula de oro. And since it was my first film I had to live it. But it takes a long time. Something I did not know that was such an important part of filmmaking. In that sense it is very positive but somewhat exhausting.
I have not been able to work and advance as much as I would have wanted with the new project but it’s coming along. I am also following a process of gathering evidence and going through some thorough investigative journalism. And from there I’m writing the script. It is entitled ‘Operation Atlas’ and has to do with the subject of the environment. I hope to begin filming by the end of this year, in Mexico and maybe Guatemala. The idea is to do something with a bigger budget and to consider working with an actor who I think would fit nicely, so you can reach bigger audiences. It was what matters in the end.