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Giving Faces to People Who Don’t Have Names

Sin Nombre (Without A Name) is a beautiful, passionately alive film from Mexico that I almost missed and am really glad I didn’t. The first film from 31 year old director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the film is a vibrant and urgent dramatic thriller that documents the journey of illegal immigrants riding freight trains from Central America and Southern Mexico on a pilgrimage to El Norte (a.k.a. the United States).

Structurally speaking, the film operates as a thriller, and it delivers the thrills (some with brutal ferocity) from beginning to end. However, what this movie does best is give faces and names to the people (“illegal” immigrants) who don’t have names in our culture and certainly don’t have any kind of substantive representation in the movies. Fukunaga was inspired to make the movie when he learned of a real life 2003 story about 80 illegal immigrants (19 of whom were dead) found in a locked truck abandoned in Texas. While the movie definitely addresses real issues of immigration and borders, it never hammers those over the audience’s head, but instead delivers a really riveting movie whose characters and stories resonate with pulsing cinematic life.

Laced with menace and a strangulating sense of danger from beginning to end, Sin Nombre works like the best of classic film noirs. As in the classic noir Out of the Past, Sin Nombre focuses on its existential male protagonist, Casper, who is hunted down by his past and has doom written all over him. As in classic noirs, Casper made a lot of decisions in life that are destined to haunt him and follow him to death’s door. There is no escaping the past for Casper, and the thrill of the movie comes from the menace of his past hunting him at every turn.  That menace comes in the form of the powerful and violent Mara Salvatruca gang (a real gang) and its leader Lil Mago. Lil Mago looks like the devil himself. His face tattooed with war paint, he is a ferocious leader. Living by the code of loyalty or death, Lil Mago initiates young boys into the gang and punishes liars by ordering them to be violently kicked and beaten for thirteen seconds. A thirteen seconds which seems like an hour when we’re watching it on screen. Lil Mago also attempts to rape and accidentally kills Casper’s girlfriend. He’s not a very nice guy. Not unlike the gangster organizations that populate depression era Hollywood gangster movies, the “mara” offers Casper economic opportunities that he wouldn’t otherwise have in an environment choking with poverty.  The problem is that to take advantage of those opportunities, Casper has to become a bad guy too, and he’s not altogether comfortable with that role. Devastated by the murder of his girlfriend, Casper attempts to flee the gang only to end up confronting them on a freight train and killing Lil Mago when trying to save another girl, Sarya, from being raped. The spiral spins further into doom as gang members seek revenge on Casper. There is no escape for Casper.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The twist on the noir element comes from the female figure. There is no femme fatale in this movie (though there is one bad woman who attempts to trap Casper). Instead there is Sayra, the viriginal teen girl from Honduras who is riding the freight trains with her father and who Casper saves from Lil Mago. Sayra and Casper play against each other setting us up for a romantic salvation narrative. Sayra’s innocence and purity drills into the innocent core of young Casper, and the cards are played so we expect redemption through love. But the film does not allow for such idealized forms of redemption. Leaving redemption through love behind, the film ends with classic noir nihilism showing us that there is no escaping your past as Casper’s past hunts him down and kills him while the innocent Sayra looks on.

More than just a border crossing story, Sin Nombre is an exceptionally well done thriller from an entirely fresh perspective.  It is a thriller about a certain set of characters (namely Casper and Sayra), but the story is framed by a whole community and culture of poverty, violence, and immigration.  Even though the characters are specific, they are projected into a more global framework by literally being framed within a vast population of Mexican and Central American immigrants who populate the screen and the culture of the film. Yes, the movie focuses on Sayra and Casper, but they are always within the context of a larger community as we see them mostly amongst hundreds of immigrants riding the trains. This is why the film functions so beautifully, because it does tell the riveting story of the characters in the film but also the story of all the people they represent. It functions both as narrative cinema (a thriller) and a socio-economic document about the culture it depicts.

The cinematography in the film is beautifully effective. Shot in rich 35mm film, the movie doesn’t rely on the hand held flash-cut gimmickry of digital video that is so often used by young filmmakers.  The camera takes its time and focuses on what is happening on the screen, and it allows space for the characters to live and breathe in their environment.   Shot on location in Mexico, at times the film feels like documentary realism (the buildings and street culture of the barrio; the small rural towns the trains pass through). At other times the film is a gorgeously surreal art film (the ominous vision of the train yards at night, the intense color saturation).  The fluctuation between the real and the surreal, the pastoral and the apocalyptic, functions just as the movie does. It is both a fictional piece of art film, and it is a document relating real life events and situations. The opening scene is a powerful example of this doubling effect. The screen is filled with a gorgeously hallucinatory forest. Autumn leaves blanket the forest floor with rich reds and oranges. Everything is peaceful and still. We wonder what this beautiful place is and why it is in this movie. Then, the camera pulls away and we see the back of Casper staring into the forest as if he is looking through a window. But as Casper begins to move through the scene, we realize he’s looking at a mural on the wall of his barrio apartment. There is no forest, just walls. He is literally walled in by his environment.

The film is full of these kinds of effective moments that are visually gorgeous but also sublimely apocalyptic.  One of the scenes that carries incredible power comes towards the very end of the film when Sayra and Casper attempt their final crossing into El Norte (America).  Sayra clings to an inner-tube floating on the muddy river as she watches Casper get brutally killed. The camera alternates between Sayra’s face and the scene on the shore where Casper is shot by the young boy Smiley and then pummeled and riddled with bullets by gang members. This scene is not done with pyrotechnics that exploit the violence. It is all seen from a distance, and the distance of the camera somehow makes it so much more effective than if the camera forced us into close-up. Rather than focusing on the specific point of injury through close-up, we are able to pull back and see the entire tragic scene of Casper’s body lying dead in the river. Rather than focusing on the single moment of his death, the camera pulls back and shows us the whole tragic landscape of Casper’s life as we see him doomed in his environment even in this seemingly pastoral riverside scene. The most compelling moment in the scene is when the sun begins to set and we see the form of Casper’s body face down in the river, the water saturated with red from his blood, echoing back to that opening scene of the red forest floor.  Casper himself becomes absorbed into the very landscape that he cannot escape.

Another moment that is simultaneously huge and small is the scene when Sayra’s father dies. Riding the freight trains, they are suddenly flanked by Border Patrol. The father runs with the rest of the immigrants trying to get away, but he trips and falls between two trains. He disappears just like that. Here one minute. Gone the next. There is no dramatic image of him plummeting to his death, no lingering camera on his mangled remains on the tracks. He just vanishes and dies because this is what happens when people attempt to cross borders. They have accidents. They die. They disappear. Even when Sayra learns of her father’s death, the camera fixes on her face as the death registers, but then she walks off screen. By pulling back from these kinds of traumatic scenes, the film does not buy into sensationalism but instead plays to a classic cinematic portrait of the human experience and allows us room to experience it rather than shoving it down our throats.

The cinematography alternates between the beauty and expanse of the countryside and the condensed claustrophobic confines of the barrio. On one hand, we see rolling hills and a sea of oak trees. On the other, we get an up close look at the apocalyptic hell of the gang headquarters. In all the environments, the details are rich — the buildings, graffiti, street scenes, food, and furnishings. The slightest object carries weight and significance because of how the color works and how the camera decides to focus on it. For example, in one scene in the gang headquarters, Lil Mago offers the young boy Smiley something to drink and brings out a half crushed plastic bottle of orange juice. In that one moment when Smiley grabs the bottle, the film encapsulates the conflicting culture of gang life which provides a sense of family bond while also being the source of the very real threat of violence. The image of the juice bottle is seemingly nurturing (the juice) while also being inherently violent and destructive (the crushed bottle). It’s a kiss you and kick you culture.

When Sayra finally arrives in Texas and the cinematography moves to America, it shifts focus yet maintains its tension. Rather than being greeted by the Land of Freedom and Promise, Sayra finds herself in the bleak colorless landscape of institutionalized America. We see her walking across vast stretches of parking lots surrounding a Walmart, a Sears, and a Sam’s Club. Cop cars drive by on the streets and we feel the threat of the police. In fact, America from this view is nothing but commerce and law. In the final scene when Sayra picks up a payphone to call her stepmother, we cannot really feel hope or victory. All we can feel is how she travelled from one hell just to reach another, and all this is accomplished by the quiet landscape of concrete, asphalt, and big box stores.

One of the most stunning visual effects in this movie is the use of trains.  Trains are everywhere in this film.  Kids gather at the train yards in the barrio. The trains sit in the yard like sleeping industrial giants. They hiss to life and cut through the landscape. Trains breathe in and out of these people’s lives. People climb onto the bodies of the trains as if they are riding some giant industrial mammoth. They populate the trains like a colony of insects on the body of a ferocious animal. The train is the body of their migration, the body of their poverty, the body of the motion of their lives that is driving them to do desperate things like ride across the country on top of a freight train while being pummeled by wind, rocks, rain, and tree branches. The trains breathe their steam and hiss with menacing life. Like the gangs, the trains provide a window of opportunity but also a very real threat of death. And these people who ride the tops of freight trains trying to grab a piece of freedom and opportunity are real people, yet they are also invisible freight.  In one scene where dozens of people are congregated on the train tracks, a commercial airplane flies over head. “Ever been in one of those?” Casper asks Sayra. The answer, of course, is no. The world where they are, sitting on the railroad tracks waiting to jump a train,  is impossibly far removed from the passengers with passports and Visas flying in that plane.

In the middle of all this migration narrative is the pulsing threat of the Mara Salvatruca gang culture. This culture is delivered through striking images of gang life as an insulated hell built on brotherhood and the threat of violence. There are a number of unapologetically brutal moments in the film, mostly involving the initiation of the young boy Smiley. Smiley is initiated into his lifetime marriage to the gang through a series of graphic incients. He is first brutally kicked on the street by gang members. Lil Mago then forces him to kill a member of the opposing gang and feed him to the dogs. His final initiation is actually hunting down and killing Casper.

Some critics like to dismiss the gang representations as being sensational, but gangs do exist and once initiated into a gang there is very little opportunity for escape from that life. The gang offers a sense of cohesion, bonding, ownership, power and opportunity in an economic landscape that provides no opportunities. There are many scenes with Lil Mago holding a baby while ordering murders and threatening violence. To some this may seem over-the-top, but the truth is that many children are born into gangs. I worked closely with Mexican gang teenagers for several years, and I’ve seen firsthand how insulated that culture is and how impossible it is to get out of it. I worked with kids who were indoctrinated from birth. Girls shot up with heroin and pimped at age seven and boys tattooed at age eight. They were born into a world not unlike the one of the baby that Lil Mago holds in his arms.  Some people may think these scenes are melodramatic, but this is real life. It’s just not a life we’re used to seeing in the movies.

One of the problems with film criticism is that educated “white” people want to ascribe their critiques of cinema to representations of a culture, like Mexican gang culture, that they actually don’t know much about. Mexican gang culture is melodramatic and tragic. It is all consuming. It is coded and inscribed into the body like the very tattoos the gang members sport. It is a lifetime permanent mark that cannot be left behind. You can’t look at it and judge it in relation to Anglo culture. You have to understand that it is a completely different culture, and we cannot use our “white” standards to judge its representation in cinema.

For example, some reviewers have criticized the film for the way the movie reduces all the characters to archetypes – the doomed gang member with his broken heart, the innocent boy corrupted and indoctrinated into violence, the virginal girl, the evil violent gang leader, the estranged father figure – but that’s how Mexican culture functions. Mythic iconography plays a huge role in Mexican culture, and the movie is showing its story through this lens. It is not applying white cinematic standards to how it represents its characters.  For example, in the scene when the train passes a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a hill, everyone stops to cross themselves, hold their prayer books or their rosaries and pray. Some people are inclined to laugh at this scene or dismiss it as being unnecessarily religious, but the Virgin of Guadalupe and this kind of absolute faith in her figure is integral to Mexican culture. It is important to recognize the huge mythic role of Catholicism in Mexican culture and to distinguish it from Euro Catholicism.  It is much more grounded in mysticism and reduced to a kind of pagan iconography. The image of these people praying to the Virgin makes their whole plight seem so much more desperate, that their lives are so consumed by poverty that they have to rely on faith for hope.

It’s amazing how many intellectual critics are so readily willing to dismiss a movie like this for bartering in stereotypes or critique it for its redemptive qualities. There is no winning in the arena of the politically correct. Either you get slammed for not representing a certain group or you get slammed for your representation of the group. We need to discard this prison of the politically correct and appreciate a movie like Sin Nombre for what it is. It is a movie from a fresh young director who actually rode freight trains with immigrants in southern Mexico. It is a film that is not about being white or from a white perspective.  It’s a movie about people who we don’t see in the movies. Take a look at what’s playing at the cineplex, and then take a look at Sin Nombre.  It certainly is a breath of fresh air compared to the vast majority of movies coming out of Hollywood. Consider the context in which Sin Nombre is operating, and then try to judge it. Why is it that a movie that is about the trials and tribulations of people who are not white, such as people trying to escape poverty and violence, is seen as trite and mocked for being melodramatic?  Certainly Hollywood puts out no shortage of schlock about white people dealing with their various crises  — white people going through divorce, white people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, white people experiencing childhood trauma, white people with autism, and whatever else white people suffer. Why do we have to denigrate a movie about brown people struggling with their issues, especially when the movie is better made and has much more interesting and innovative cinematography and editing than the vast majority of American movies?

Walking out of the movie theater and seeing the halls plastered with posters of upcoming summer releases, I could really feel how refreshing it was to see Sin Nombre and not have to look at another Judd Apatow movie or another Comic Book Hero on Steroids bursting out of the screen. Besides, Sin Nombre is an excellent piece of filmmaking.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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