President Obama recently addressed the crying need for comprehensive immigration reform. He reminded us that we are a nation of immigrants. Yet, for many, the question remains, "Why are so many people willing to risk so much to cross the U.S. border?" The award-winning independent film Sin Nombre elects to show, rather than tell us. It is a poetic portrait of this highly politicized social justice issue.
Filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga researched Honduran immigrants' plight, riding cargo trains loaded with hope-filled sojourners. His resulting first feature is a beautiful and troubling trek toward the Rio Grande. It also immerses viewers in the brutal initiation rites of the Mara Salvatrucha gang culture. Started by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, Mara Salvatrucha's network has now been exported (or rather deported) across Central America. Sin Nombre is a riveting story of escape and a haunting fight for survival -- a contemporary exodus not recommended for the squeamish. It connects the dots between economics and immigration. But for those who want to get inside the immigrant experience, Sin Nombre puts a compelling face on those who often die "without a name."
Sin Nombre begins in Tapachula, Chiapas, near the Mexican/Guatemalan border. Casper, a teenage member of Mara Salvatrucha, is ushering a young boy nicknamed Smiley into the gang. The local boss, Lil' Mago, counts down each crushing blow that gets Smiley closer to membership. Innocence is more than lost. It is beat out of Casper and Smiley. At times, Fukunaga's camera seems too fascinated by the tattoos, blood, and brutality that surround Casper. But eventually Casper comes to share our revulsion when Lil' Mago commits a particularly heinous crime. Casper casts off his gang name and seeks to erase his identifying tattoos. "Casper" is willing to die, so that his long-buried origins as Willy may live.
The second story starts even further south with a trio of Hondurans. A beautiful girl, Sayra, her estranged father, and her uncle hope to reunite with their extended family in New Jersey. They bide their time between trains, rushing to climb atop box cars. They face threats from the elements, gangs, and fellow travelers until Willy comes to Sayra's defense. Amid considerable tension, Fukunaga captures moments of raw beauty. We see lush cemeteries, bustling train stops, and tasty local foods. But scenes of quiet reflection are soon interrupted by the bloodlust of Mara Salvatrucha.
Young actors Edgar Flores (as Casper) and Paulina Gaitan (as Sayra) make a remarkably compelling couple. Our hearts break for adolescents shoved into survival mode. They share a single moment of respite in a church, transformed into a safe house for immigrants. Sin Nombre extends so much respect and empathy toward those who undertake such a challenging journey. How many trials must they endure before they even reach our shores? The film avoids overt political commentary, deciding that as our respect and understanding for the "nameless" rises, so will our compassion and embrace.
The 2009 Sundance Film Festival jury awarded prizes to both director Fukunaga and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, for their outstanding work. The lush visuals in Sin Nombre provide only fleeting relief from the pressure-packed story. My sharp student Jason Coker suggested that Sin Nombre reawakens the perspective found in Amos 9:7:
"Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?" declares the Lord. "Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?"
I had the privilege of interviewing Fukunaga and his producer, Amy Kaufman, about Sin Nombre at the Windrider Forum at Sundance. You'll hear these young filmmakers demonstrate a commitment to their craft and a heart for humanity. They acknowledge how much faith informs immigrants' risk-taking exodus. But for Fukunaga, Sin Nombre is ultimately about family, about the unlikely bonds that form when our support systems are shredded. We'll be hearing more from Fukunaga for years to come. Yet until we enact significant and comprehensive immigration reform, Sin Nombre is likely to grow in heartbreaking relevance.
Craig Detweiler directs the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary. His comedic documentary, Purple State of Mind, bridges the cultural and religious divide.