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Before ‘True Detective’: Cary Joji Fukunaga on His Immigration Drama ‘Sin Nombre’

As IndieWire prepares to host a screening of "Sin Nombre" in New York, here's a look back at Fukunaga's debut in his own words.

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga

Daniel Bergeron

What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?

“Victoria Para Chino,” my 2nd year film at NYU, gave birth to “Sin Nombre”. In the spring of my first year we began writing what would be our 2nd year short film projects. I wanted to make a film that would be an observation of the times we were living in, but I didn’t have a specific story until I read a front page piece in The New York Times about 90 Mexican and Central American immigrants trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. Nineteen people had died from asphyxiation and heat exhaustion, including a father and his 5 year-old son.

The images from the article were visceral and potent. Despite not knowing if I had the faculties to accomplish telling that story, I set myself to researching it and to familiarize myself with the world of illegal immigration, specifically from central America to the United States. Although I was from California, had a Mexican-American stepdad (who often threatened to send me to work in the peach orchards if I misbehaved) and was well accustomed to hearing about illegal immigration, I had never before invested myself in the topic. But this story – for reasons I still cannot explain – forced me to rediscover something that had always been in front of and surrounding me my entire life.

With brief moments of cold-feet, I ultimately made that short film the winter of my 2nd year. It was my first color film with dialogue, music, etc. All the components that one would imagine in a traditional movie (before that NYU had set restrictions on what we could put in our films, including music, text, and dialogue). A year later I’d finished editing and started submitting it to film festivals. From the very first screenings it began to have an unexpected reception — I had just wanted people to see what I saw in the article in The New York Times — but suddenly the film was winning awards (the first three festivals in a row) including a jury prize from Sundance. The film went on to win 24 international awards, including a student Academy Award. Development executives, managers and agents were calling, and I was being asked if I had a feature in development on the same subject, or any other feature scripts ready. As I didn’t write the short to be a calling card film, I wasn’t prepared. I had no idea what to tell them I had next, I hadn’t even thought of what I was going to do for a thesis yet ([which is] normally another short film).

“Sin Nombre”

It was an amazing feeling. It is what every film student dreams for, the proverbial jackpot, even though that was not my intention. And because of that, something about it all felt wrong. I didn’t think this was my story to tell, even if I knew there was more to tell, I wasn’t sure if I was the guy to do it. While researching the short, I learned about the awful journey Central American immigrants went through in order to get to the United States – crossing the infinitely more dangerous badlands of Mexico on top of (not in) freight trains bound for the US Border. It was like a world that belonged to the old wild west, but more than anything, it was not my world, and not my story. I had just made a short, after all, about one event. It was an observation, a brief experience, but not a feature, not something that required my life’s experience or cultural know-how to tell correctly.

So I decided to go down to Chiapas with two of my friends from the short to investigate in person the story that it seemed inevitable that I would be writing. Over two months we went to prisons to interview the gang members that controlled the train lines and the gangs they battled with, we went to shelters for the traveling immigrants and those injured on the journey, and organizations that specialized in the human rights of the immigrants who were being accosted on the way. We interviewed hundreds of immigrants in train yards and in varying states of the journey.

“Sin Nombre”

I felt strange about the possibility of profiting on a story about real people risking their lives. I get frustrated with certain filmmakers who stand under a banner of altruism with their socio/political stories that I think sometimes border on the exploitative. Often times human interest stories with sensational subjects often go on to win awards. I guess I feel that the filmmakers had to sacrifice little to make it, and once done, never again revisit the subject but reap all the benefits from others misery. As author of the story, the only way I felt I could try and level that difference would be to share in the risk. Since I was telling a story about the journey, I could at least tell it as I saw it. So, despite my friend’s protests, I decided to ride the train. They wouldn’t be coming, both out of choice and that I couldn’t force them to risk their lives if they didn’t feel the same way I did. My first train had 700 central American immigrants on it. The same trains marauded by the gangs and bandits, exploited by the police, and at the mercy of the weather which saw fit to derail two trains that same summer.

We were attacked within three hours my first night. The train often stops. We were somewhere in the pitch black regions of the Chiapan country side. In the alcove of the next train car I heard the distinct pops of gunshots, always louder than they seem in the movies, then the screams of immigrants passing the word: “Pandillas! Pandillas!” (gangsters). Everyone scattered, I could hear them running in past our tanker car. Not having any where to run to, I stayed on, waiting for there to be a sign the gangs or bandits were approaching us. After a tense pause, the train rocked and continued on again north, the immigrant who had ran clamored aboard anew. Nothing happened the rest of the night, but everyone was up and vigilant.

The next day I talked to two Hondurans who were next to the attack. They told me a Guatemalan immigrant didn’t want to give two bandits his money so they shot him and throw him under the train. Without knowing if the bandits were still on board, I traveled on for another night before stopping near the Oaxacan border. Two days later, when I finally made it back to the town I started from, I learned the police had found the body of a Guatemalan immigrant, shot and abandoned near where I calculated the attack took place. That was my first trip, but the reality of the event stuck with me. Nothing could have driven home the sensation of fear and impotence than what I had felt first hand with those immigrants. I traveled three more times with different groups, finally finishing my research before the mountains in Orizaba that cross into Puebla and Mexico City. At first, I felt awkward on these trips, the immigrants looking at me like a clown in a courtroom. But soon I was accepted as a strange, but somehow acceptable presence amongst my travelers. We laughed as we traded stories and discovered each other, sweated under the intense heat, suffered through dehydration and sun exposure, and protected each other during rain storms and immigration raids.

What ended up happening through these journeys was a growing sense that I had been accumulating the kind of experience that would require me to make the movie. And I don’t mean this in a missionary sense. Rather, that the feature I was writing had become mine almost by accident. But as I started to own it, it had become my story. When I told the immigrants that this was for a film rather than a reportage, they were amused. They agreed it was an interesting idea, that someone should tell their story. And I promise that on more than few assured me that even though I was a gringo, it was okay I was going to tell it, and that I better tell it like it is. Although one did ask if I would cast Leo DiCaprio as him.

What are the prevailing themes of the film?

The film has some violent content, and some actions result in severe consequences, but I’d say the main themes of the film revolve around the idea of “family.” This is the one point where I could inject my own experience into this foreign world and how I saw the functions and dysfunctions of the human penchant for creating families. I suppose I could simply say the film is about the disintegration and recreation of the family unit in its unique and varying forms. My producer, Amy Kaufman and I have differing points of view on whether the structure of the film could be described as a Western or as Greek tragedy, I’m more for the Western, she for Greek tragedy, but I’d say it’s a somewhat traditional story in it’s biblical take on cause and effect.

Why should people see your film?

I think that the subject is something that many people are familiar with but few have seen. Immigration stories typically take place right on the border, or deal with life once in the destination countries. A rare exception is Winterbottom’s “In This World.” In this film I try to make it about the journey itself, and I think its a fascinating modern day exodus, not only made up of immigrants, but of an entire subculture built around it, perpetuating a cycle of violence that has made the Central American’s journey to the US a particularly extraordinary one. We were also able to get amazing performance from our ensemble cast – the lead is straight off the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras – as well as shooting in the real locations, which accomplished a sense of realism and authenticity that I hopes does justice to the immigrant’s story.

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