The Common Good
June 2009

Human Freight

by Laurel Frodge | June 2009

Sin Nombre, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Focus Films.

Like hearing an unresolved chord, seeing Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film Sin Nombre demands a response. Whether this stems from the characters’ outpouring of good or the capacity for evil you witness in them is hard to tell.

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Sin Nombre, Fukunaga’s feature debut—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January—takes viewers on the brutal freight train passage to the U.S. border from Teguci­galpa, Honduras, and Chiapas, Mexi­co. Men with mismatched shoes and dry hands, women wearing shirts two sizes too small, and confused children scramble for dusty packs and prepare to jump aboard their ride to “the American dream.” Most will face a spectrum of unpleasant outcomes—loss of limbs, dehydration, banditos, rape, separation from the group, deportation by Mexican immigration authorities, death. Only the resilient and lucky will arrive at the border unscarred.

Willy (played by Edgar Flores), a tattooed thug in the notoriously violent Central American gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, hopes to escape a street life of destitution. Accompanied by an innocent sidekick, Sayra (played by Paulina Gaitan), he learns the cost of betrayal and sacrifice. “A psychic once told me,” Sayra whispers to Willy, “‘you’ll make it to the USA—not in God’s hands, but in the hands of the devil.’” Sayra indeed makes compromises on the route north, including dangerous exchanges with MS-13.

This script mirrors the story of hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants making the treacherous journey to the U.S., a country where one of five U.S. children is living in an immigrant family and the abbreviations DHS, ICE, and INS have permanently entered our nation’s lexicon.

IN STEP WITH Mexican film style, Fukunaga forces viewers to brave the tightrope for a grueling 96 minutes. We delight in and abhor each moment, wincing even as characters are redeemed. He does not spare the audience from scenes of violence and leaves nothing to the imagination. This film isn’t for the weak of heart or stomach—it’s not your typical “why do good people do bad things” plot, and these are not your typical characters.

Fukunaga made his mark in 2004 with Victoria Para Chino, a 13-minute film inspired by the death of 19 immigrants left in a sealed trailer in south Texas. His work then, as now, was based on intimate research of the people we all seem to know. His characters are disarmingly believable—the girl you pay at the lunchtime taquería counter, the teen who meets your eye as he exchanges playful punches with his friends outside 7-11, the rumpled dishwasher behind a swinging restaurant door. Their histories and fates are all wrapped as one.

In addition to riding the train three times himself, Fukunaga’s research included dialect trainers to help actors nail down regional tongues. Imprisoned gang members coached the director in proper slang, hand symbols, and curse-word-to-dialogue ratio. When he asked them about the more mundane aspects of community life, Fukunaga told The New York Times, “The guys were like, ‘Enough of this … I want to tell you how we chop up bodies.’” With so raw a context, it’s no wonder my heart hammered for an hour after the cinema lights turned back on.

Inspired by the thousands of nameless immigrants, commemorated by the countless white crosses that decorate Mexico’s northern border, Sin Nombre—“without a name”—puts faces to an issue we can no longer keep at arm’s length.

Laurel Frodge is advertising assistant at Sojourners.

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