Roof-Riding to an Uncertain Fate

First-time feature filmmaker Cary Fukunaga captures the immigrant experience in 'Sin Nombre'

<i>Sin Nombre </i>writer/director Cary Fukunaga
Sin Nombre writer/director Cary Fukunaga (Photo by Jana Birchum)

No matter which side of the (as yet metaphorical) border fence you stand on when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, director and Sundance Institute graduate Cary Fukunaga's riveting debut feature, Sin Nombre, will likely leave you with a newfound appreciation of why, exactly, so many Latin Americans risk everything, including their lives and the lives of their loved ones, to make the journey. Sin Nombre follows a pair of los olvidados from Honduras to the rail lines of Chiapas, Mexico, and from there to the literal tops of the trains that will ferry them across the whole of Mexico to what is more often than not an uncertain fate at the gates of America.

Gang member Willy (played in a remarkable turn by nonprofessional actor Edgar Flores) is fleeing from – and being pursued by – his former family, the notorious, bloodthirsty Mara Salvatrucha gang. Honduran teen Sayra (played by Paulina Gaitan) is traveling north with her uncle and cousin in the hopes of making it to the promised land (New Jersey), where she has relatives and, presumably, a better life awaits. This unlikely couple find their fates inextricably linked while making the perilous (and often shockingly violent) sojourn/flight to freedom, or death, or possibly a little bit of both. The resulting film is devastating in a near-documentary way; it nails both the banal horrors of Willy's mala vida and the ephemeral hope of a better life for Sayra just across the border.

The Austin Chronicle spoke with Fukunaga about his unconventional casting and the importance of avoiding "colonial filmmaking" when he was in town for Sin Nombre's regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Cary Fukunaga: Right from the start I was looking to cast a Honduran girl for the role of Sayra. I went down to Honduras probably four or five times trying to find her, and instead I found Edgar Flores. His character had actually been written as being Mexican in the script, but I hadn't found anyone in Mexico who had the right amount of "street" in their face. I found people who could act street, but I was really looking for someone who could just be street. And that was Edgar from the moment I met him.

Austin Chronicle: What kind of yardstick were you using to calibrate your vision of what "street" was? Gut instinct?

CF: You can just see it in someone's eyes. When someone's street, they've got this look in their eyes that just says no bullshit. And that's not something you can fake. So I was trying to do these street castings, and it was going okay, and then I was doing traditional casting in Mexico, and that wasn't going so well. And by then it was a month and a half off from shooting, and I still hadn't found my lead. I had a stand-by guy who was this middle-class rich kid who had plenty of, like, punk in him, but he wasn't "street" by any means. And then I found Edgar in Honduras, and I was like, "This is it; this is the kid." ...

I had seen Paulina [Gaitan] in Trade a couple of years earlier, and I thought her performance was great. And so the question became one of: Can she play a Honduran? From the start, I was adamant about casting a Honduran girl for that role.

AC: The cultural and linguistic nuances between Hondurans and Mexicans are not what you'd call highly appreciated to most people in el Norte.

CF: Right. I showed her some of my castings of Hondurans and then had her approximate the accent, and then I'd show that to my Honduran friends to see if they bought it, and that's how I ended up casting her.

AC: A key part of the action is set in a bustling rail yard that serves as the embarkation point for the illegals heading north. It's such a convincingly squalid location that I have to ask: Was that a real, functioning rail yard, or did you set-dress some abandoned train depot out in the sticks?

CF: That was really hard because I was determined to shoot in a real rail yard in Tapachula, but getting the entire crew there just wasn't feasible. We looked around at a bunch of train stations and ended up deciding to do it at this station that looked nothing like the region of Tapachula, and I was really upset about it. We were going to spend $30,000 of our budget doing facades over existing buildings and various things. At the last minute, while we were scouting for an entirely different location, I saw some train tracks and some houses, and I thought, "Hey, this looks just like Tapachula." It was a tiny little place, but I convinced my locations people that even in Tapachula the station isn't major; it's just a bunch of train tracks. So literally a week, two weeks before shooting, we found it and got it.

AC: Sin Nombre has an almost documentary feel to it. Was that intentional from the start?

CF: Actually I was going less for documentary than I was for photojournalism. I think there's something very specific about photojournalism that captures moments, and that was what I was trying to go for.

AC: How did Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna come on board as producers?

CF: From the start, we didn't want Sin Nombre to be just a bunch of gringos going to Mexico to make a movie. Gael and Diego's production company, Canana Films, had a deal with Focus, and since we wanted, specifically, to make this a co-production with Mexico, that was a priority from the very beginning. We didn't want this to be "colonial filmmaking."

AC: What kind of rollout is the film receiving in Mexico as compared to the U.S.?

CF: It's opening much bigger in Mexico, on May 1, on something like 200 screens for opening weekend. That's a little nerve-racking, but it's great. I got to see it with an audience last week in Guadalajara, which was tough because that's a very conservative area. I went out before the screening began and told the audience it's a little violent in the beginning, but if you can make it through the first half, you'll be okay.

AC: Were they?

CF: Yeah, they were. I'm used to people walking out during screenings because of the violence in the first half of the film, but on that occasion in Guadalajara, no one walked out. Some people were crying, but there weren't any walkouts.

Sin Nombre opens in Austin on Friday, April 17. See review for more.

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