Sin Nombre tells the story of a Honduran immigrant family on a dangerous train journey through Mexico to the US. US filmmaker Cary Fukunaga talks to Christophe Chataigné about his astounding and gripping debut
Why did you choose immigration as the subject for your first film? It seems like a risky choice.
I didn't really think about it in those terms. I did a short film while still at film school. It was my second year project, not my thesis project, which typically as a film student you save for your calling card film - the film that you think might start your career. For your second year film you can just do whatever you want. And rather than do something ridiculous I wanted to do a serious film, more about today's issues.
I read this story about a trailer that was abandoned in Texas with immigrants inside it, and some of them ended up dying. It seemed like the perfect story to tell in the short story format, and because there's a limited location - it's isolated - it seemed a little bit easier to accomplish on a film student budget. So I made that film [Victoria para Chino] and it went on to have a life that was unexpected. It travelled to a lot of film festivals and won awards. While doing the research for the film I learned about Central American immigration, which I had never heard of before in terms of immigrants riding on top of freight trains and facing gangs.
Some of the people on the trailer were from Central America. In fact, there's a line in the short film where one of the guys wants to kill a kid - a little kid inside who's crying at a checkpoint. He says, "Some of us have come further than you." The idea was that for Mexicans it's easy because they take a bus to the border and then they deal with the smuggling across the border. But for Central Americans and Brazilians and even Cubans sometimes, they have to go through Central America and across Mexico, which is extremely dangerous.
How did you research it?
Firstly newspapers and longer forms of investigative journalism. Then in the summer of 2005 I went down to Central America and southern Mexico and did my own research. I brought a friend who had produced the short film. We organised academic research, meeting professors in universities in Chiapas. They put us into contact with the head of the state security, who got us into the prisons. Then from the prisons we went down to the border and started meeting immigrants and other rights groups - as if I were writing a research paper, basically.
Then the plan was to jump on the freight trains, but after about two weeks of doing research like that, my friends (another friend had joined us) said they didn't want to get on the freight trains, understandably. But I decided I was going to do it. So I did the freight trains at the end of our three weeks in Chiapas and I rode across Chiapas with about 800 immigrants. That was the first train ride I did of three.
It must have been a difficult journey to take.
Yes, a lot of stuff you see in the film is based on that train ride - small details about how people react and the kind of conversations people have; what they do to protect themselves; how people spread the word if there's attacks and things like that. It's all based on that trip.
The scene where the migrants wait for the train at night - it's dark and there's this floodlight, which gives the train an ominous look. It made me think of a deportation train.
That's interesting. That comes from the nights I spent at the train station with the migrants. It's scary when the train arrives. You feel it in your stomach; you feel nauseous. It's big and noisy and you're tired and your nerves are more sensitive. So I tried to put on screen how I remember feeling about it.
You show scenes of people helping - some lob fruit up to the immigrants on the trains but then later we see kids on the side of the tracks throwing rocks at them.
The rock-throwing part was from a guy I met on the border of Texas, a young guy who spent about three weeks crossing. There was a bunch of kids throwing rocks at them, heavy rocks, and their parents were just standing there doing nothing about it.
How did you come across the Mara Salvatrucha gang?
They're part of the environment. What took a long time was finding out exactly how they were involved and why. Because a racketeering gang exists to make money - a gang is not always for protection. So if there's no money to be made it's hard to figure out why they exist. So most of the time most members of the gang denied they had anything to do with immigration.
It took about a year and a half before anyone would say, "This is how it works, this is how we make our money from immigration." In southern Mexico the Mara control some drug dealing, some weapon smuggling, but they also control the train lines, so they are able to make money by taxing people on their territory. They tax the smugglers who are already charging the immigrants, so they are basically a middle level, another addition to the fee an immigrant pays to cross Mexico.
You ensure none of the characters are one-dimensional, especially the gang members.
I spent a lot of time asking the gang who bought things like toilet paper and how they did shopping in the house they all lived in together. They usually don't get asked those questions. I just didn't know how this household would work. How do you go shopping when you've got a face full of tattoos, you're going to buy Mr Clean to clean toilets and other stuff?
Your film succeeds in dealing with the issue of immigration because of your script. You don't lecture people about the issue. Was there a tension between the subject and your artistic direction?
I didn't want to make it a film about an issue per se, because that's just not an interesting story. When you try to make a story out of an issue it just ends up feeling contrived. So it just tries to stay with the characters first and I didn't really think about whether I was going to talk about immigration laws or gang laws or things that people on the street level wouldn't talk about. We told the story. That was it.
How did you work with real migrants?
That was towards the end of the film. We'd already done four or five weeks of shooting before that. In all the scenes that take place in Tapachula they were all extras, not real migrants. I'd have to place them, tell them how to sit, organise the different groups of extras so that it seemed realistic. Once we had the real immigrants I didn't have to tell them anything - they know how to sit on top of a train!
By the time I was shooting I was so used to travelling with immigrants and my actors were getting to meet them and spend time with them, hear their stories. I thought it was good for the people I was working with that they got to see and experience what I had experienced.
Do you think people's views of immigration will change when they see the film?
I do think films can influence people, and especially influence them to learn more. When I was growing up I'd watch a movie and something would really fascinate me and I'd go and learn a lot about it. But to change people's minds I think it takes much more time and you have to hit them personally, so I'm not sure I expect the film to change people's minds. If someone's anti-immigration they're going to be anti-immigration after the film - they'll probably think the film is some kind of propaganda. And someone who is pro human rights is still going to feel that way after the film.
My philosophy in film school was the idea of filmmaking as what the griots do in Africa - you collect stories then you record them. The story's not meant to be any more than a record of a time. So this is Mexican immigration 2007.
The issue is very topical in Britain today as we have just had two fascists win seats in the European parliament.
Always in times of economic strife people become way more jingoistic and isolationist. It's hard, but the reality is that it's always easier to point the finger at the outsider, but that's rarely the root of the problem.
What are you working on now?
I've just now really started to put effort into writing a new film. This one is not at all like Sin Nombre, it's more fantastical, maybe it's going to be a musical.
So you are quite happy to change genre, but do you still want to tell a story that has roots in today's world?
Absolutely. I wrote a film in 2007 based on a Nigerian novel called Beast of No Nation. I still really like the script. It's a straightforward script, about a child in an unnamed West African country - it could be Sierra Leone or Liberia; it could be Nigeria 30 years ago. But right now it's difficult to make that film, so I'm hoping to make it in a couple of years. But in between maybe I'll make something more escapist.
I'd like to mix it up. I'd just rather try a lot of different things and hopefully each film can stand on its own, and I will not be pigeonholed as someone who makes films about real life and has no imagination.
Sin Nombre is released on 14 August