miércoles, 14 de mayo de 2014

Why I go to the movies, with Lillian

by Jan Galligan & Lillian Mulero
Santa Olaya, PR

 (#2 in a series)

[preview screening: 5th Festival de Cine Europeo, sponsored by Alliance Francaise of Puerto Rico]

Nearly 12,000,000 undocumented immigrants now live in the US. More than half came from Mexico, and over 1,300,000 from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. From Guatemala alone, some 12,000 people manage to enter the US each year. Many make the trip by way of La Bestia, a series of trains that travel from Guatemala to the Mexico-California border. More popularly known as The Train of Death, it is a fearful journey filled with terror and uncertainty. Hundreds of men, women and children ride for 1500 miles on the top of freight cars, hanging on to their hopes of a better life in El Norte.

Stuffed in my pocket, my cell phone keeps buzzing. Right now, I'm far too engrossed in what's happening on screen to bother with incoming messages.  We are about half way along a journey from southern Guatemala, crossing the vast expanse of Mexico. Headed north, we're trying to get to Los Angeles. This trip is unimaginably arduous, and as we've heard, dangerous and life-threatening. It's not at all certain we will make it to the end. Two of our party of four are already missing. One decided to drop out near the Guatemala-Mexico border. The other, has just been taken away by a vicious gang, operating near Zacatecas, in central Mexico. The thieving bandits are also  kidnappers, who force their victims into slavery and prostitution. 

Juan is a sixteen-year old from the slums of Guatemala City. He's traveling with Chauk, the name given a young Mayan Indian who speaks no Spanish and who has been incessantly trying to teach us a few words from his language. Me, I'm holding onto the edge of my seat, listening to the Spanish, reading English subtitles, and trying hard to learn a bit of Tzotzil, hoping for a few clues to help sort nightmare from reality. Trouble is, there is no separation. 

The nightmare began in a tin shack barrio, Region 3 in Guatemala City, where Juan worked the streets, saved a few dollars and dreamed of escape from his dead-end existence. Juan enlisted Samuel, a  teenage friend who scrapes a living from mountains of garbage near their barrio. Together they enticed Sara, who, before they departed, turned herself into Osvaldo by cutting off her hair and hiding her pubescent breasts with tape and gauze. 

Juan's plan is to ride El Tren de la Muerte.  He's packed a few essentials into a napsack and sewed his savings into the lining of his jeans. Samuel travels light, just a t-shirt and a pair of sneakers. Sara has tucked her remaining strands of hair into a baseball cap to reinforce her new identity as Osvaldo. Catching the train is a nightmare which involves running along next to the train, grabbing a handhold on one of the cars and jumping up onto the moving train. They miss their first attempt. Waiting for the next opportunity, they encounter the young Indian, carrying a cloth bag and a large machete. Juan and Samuel are suspicious and resentful of the Indian. Sara is curious and intrigued.

Together, they catch the next train headed north. Pulling themselves to the top of a freight car, they settle in for a very long journey. Fortunately, the young Indian has brought some food which he tries to share. Juan and Samuel refuse. Sara accepts. The Indian begins his language lessons and Sara names him Chauk. Then, he falls asleep and dreams of snow, and soon we are lightly covered in metaphor. 

Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), Juan (Brandon Lopez) and Sara/Osvaldo (Karen Martinez)

When the train reaches the Guatemala-Mexico border near Tapachulas, Samuel gets off, choosing to return to the absolute poverty of his ghetto home. Juan, Sara and Chauk press on, until they are accosted by Los Zetas, the bandits in Zacatecas. Sara is kidnapped. Juan, nearly beaten to death, is saved by the ministrations of Chauk, who uses a salve of ancient Mayan plant medicine to treat Juan's wounds. As Juan lays recovering, he dreams of snow. When he wakes, the nightmare continues, unrelenting – until one last snowstorm, right before the closing credits.

Walking out of the screening room, we are swept to the middle of a cocktail party, and I discover Lillian deep in conversation with Diego Quemada-Dias, director of this, his first feature length film, La Juala de Oro,. Lillian quickly fills me in on Quemada-Dias' background: born in Burgos, Spain; works in Mexico and Hollywood; cameraman on films by Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; adherent of a verite, extemporaneous style of filming, most likely learned working with Inarritu. Lillian says that he chose the young actors because they were inexperienced and untrained, which added authenticity to their performances. Most of their dialogue is ad lib, invented on the spot, based on outlines given to them by the director. The movie was shot on film, using super-16, light weight, extremely portable equipment, which allowed for filming documentary-style, riding on top of freight trains, crawling through tunnels, and running through the woods. Most scenes were filmed in actual situations, which allows the fiction of the story to blend with the reality of the moment.

I'm puzzled by the film's title. Lillian tells me it comes from a song by the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte, an ode to the despair of undocumented migrants who quickly discover that working in the US as poorly paid laborers is like “living in a golden cage.” The song says:

De que me sirve el dinero,
si estoy como prisionero,
dentro de esta gran nacion,
cuando me acuerdo hasta lloro,
aunque la jaula sea de oro,
no deja de ser prision,

Curious about the recurring metaphor of falling snow, filmed at night – thousands of white flakes falling from a deep black sky – I turn to our companion for this private screening, the English translator of Mundo Cruel, Luis Negron's collection of stories about the gritty street life of working class Santurce. She tells me that the story of this film is a trip from hell, through hell, that ends in hell. The snow offers a faint glimmer of hope. If not an escape, it is at least a respite from unrelenting misery. She says it also represents the thousands of immigrants making their way north, following a dream, looking for a light at the end of the tunnel and trying to end the nightmare of being trapped in a life of abject poverty.

Juan and Chauk at the Mexico-California border

La Juala de Oro is not the first film on this subject. Cary Joji Fukunaga's 2009 Sin Nombre tells the story of a teenage Honduran girl and her frightful encounters with a Mexican gang while riding the train trying to get to the USA. Quemada-Dias's film may be the first attempt to direct the story to audiences on both sides of the fence separating South America from El Norte. South of the border, the message is clear: you will travel at your own risk, and face the likely chance of being robbed, beaten, raped if you are female, arrested by the police and/or captured by Immigration and sent back to where you started. For the US audience, living north of a border, for all intents sealed from intrusion, the film puts you in the shoes of someone desperate enough to take those risks for a slim chance at a better life.

Is the risk worth it? Ten years ago, Frida Hinojosa rode the train from Tapachulas to find work in the US. In an article in the BBC, she says, "I saw a mother whose child died on the train and she had to bury him on the Mexican side of the border before continuing her journey. I saw rapes, I saw murders. Knowing that I was doing this for my son gave me the strength and hope to keep going. Now he's a grown-up, God bless him, and we are together.” Asked if she would do it again, she replied without hesitation, “Of course I would. Everything I got here makes it worth the ordeal. I wouldn't have achieved anything if I had stayed in Mexico. Most migrants on the train shared a dream. We were in it together.”

Brandon Lopez (Juan), Diego Quemada-Dias (director), Karen Martinez (Sara/Osvaldo) and Rodolfo Dominguez (Chauk) at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where they won the Un Certain Regard (A Certain Talent) award.

102 min
October 2013
Directed by Diego Quemada-Diez. Screenplay, Quemada-Diez, Lucia Carreras, Gibran Portela. Camera (color, widescreen), Maria Secco; editors, Paloma Lopez Carillo, Felipe Gomez; music, Jacobo Lieberman, Leo Heiblum
Staring: Brandon Lopez, Rodolfo Dominguez, Karen Martinez, Carlos Chajon. (Spanish, Tzotzil dialogue)
An Animal de Luz Films, Machete Prods., Kinemascope Films production

Related article about "The Beast" from New York Times:

Stowaways Are Stranded in Mexico by Train Ban


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