A Conversation with Film Director Diego Quemada-Díez

The Golden Dream is a haunting, beautiful, unflinchingly realistic film that depicts the struggle of three Guatemalans and an Indian from Chiapas on their journey through Mexico to the United States.

Released in 2013, it has received nine Ariels from the Mexican Film Academy, including Best Picture. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain regard” (A Certain Talent) section – the Gillo Pontecorvo Award, the François Chalais Award, and the award for acting ensemble. Add to the list Best New Director at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Satjavit Ray Best Director Award at the London Film Festival; the Jean Renoir Award in France; and three Fenix Awards (including Best Iberoamerican Picture) at the first Latin-American Oscars held in Mexico City.

The Golden Dream has received more awards than any other Mexican film, ever. It has also received five-star reviews from The Mirror, Irish Times and The Guardian (“powerful and truthful, urgent, defiant and heartbreaking”). All of which is a testament to the understated artistry of director Diego Quemada-Díez, and the talents of the film crew and actors who poured their souls into the film.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll keep my review short.

The film begins with 15 year-old Juan (Brandon Lopez) walking purposefully through an impoverished Guatemalan town. In another part of town, his girlfriend Sara (Karen Martínez) stops in a restroom to cut her hair and strap her breasts to her Poster La Jaula de Oro Mexicochest. She wears a baseball cap, trying to look like a boy. Now at home, Juan sews some bills into the lining of his pants. He then walks to the edge of town to meet Samuel (Carlos Chajon) at a vast garbage dump where people are scrounging for food and items to sell.

The teens are dressed in faded t-shirts and dungarees. Equipped only with backpacks and fierce determination, they resemble soldiers gearing up for a one-way mission into a combat zone. On their way out of town, they pass pictures of missing persons on a wall.

They have nothing to say, not even good-bye. Now is the time for action.

Indeed, The Golden Dream is a subtle film in which little is explained, and everything is shown. On a bus ride to their point of embarkation, we hear only plaintive notes played on a piano. And thus the somber mood is set for the remainder of the film and its suspenseful, at times harrowing scenes.

The first unexpected event occurs early on, when an indigenous Tzotzil Indian named Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez) joins the group. Chauk has a machete and a T shirt with a picture of two armed guerrillas on it. He appears dangerous. He doesn’t speak Spanish, and throughout the film, Juan struggles to accept him. This dynamic does much to define the film.

The film is honest in every respect. Other than obstacles to overcome, nothing comes easy to migrants navigating a harsh and complex world. Virtually defenseless in a jungle of predators, their feelings and sensitivities are rubbed as raw as the environment. But there are also wonderful scenes of redemption and tenderness, and the teens find ways to celebrate their comradeship with other migrants, and with migrant sympathizers, on and off “the Beast,” the slow train the migrants ride to the American border – where, Juan assures the others, “everything is much better.”

Part documentary, part drama, The Golden Dream is one of the most poetic and important films I have ever seen. As a non-fiction writer concerned with political and social justice, it was easy for me to relate to the migrant teens, despite the obvious differences. On another level, I felt as if their quest was mine, as if our common story was finally being told. Their journey seemed a perfect metaphor for the struggle of activists living in America, here and yet trying to “reach” America, to make it more aware, more compassionate.

Over and above all the other emotions it generated, The Golden Dream left me feeling spiritually fulfilled. As art, it achieves what is elusive in life. And given its style, content and message, it is only fitting that, after having been applauded around the world, the film is finally reaching the United States, where “everything is much better.” If not exactly understood.

The Director

I recently had the privilege of interviewing film director Diego Quemada-Díez, who kindly agreed to tell me a little about himself and the process of making this landmark film.

DV – Diego, thank you for taking the time to talk to me. How did growing up in Spain influence your philosophy and political views?

Diego – I was born in Burgos during Franco’s dictatorship. Burgos is a very traditional, Catholic town. It was the fascist capital during the Spanish Civil War. Soon after I was born my family moved to Logroño, a small town where my dad was from. My dad worked at the textile business his family had established in 1756, which went bankrupt in the late 1970s. His family was aligned with the fascists.

At eight years old my parents separated and my mother and I moved to Barcelona. My mother was a school teacher who loved poetry, film, history, theater and all the arts. She had very progressive views that deeply influenced me. She loved Lorca, Miguel Hernandez (both killed by fascists), Antonio Machado and mystics like Santa Teresa and San Juan de la Cruz. She travelled a lot to Guatemala and Mexico in the late 70s and 80s. She visited missionary friends, followers of the Liberation Theology, many of whom were killed by the CIA or paramilitaries. She would come back from those trips and tell me stories of occupation, of massacres, of the beauty of indigenous cultures. I used to cry and feel their suffering. I wished I had made those trips, and maybe that’s why I live now in Latin America and have become a Mexican national.

My godmother had a contemporary art gallery in Barcelona, and we spent a lot of time surrounded by radical performance artists and painters. I’ve been painting, drawing and writing since I was a child. The art school I attended was politically quite progressive. We worked on interpretations of the Guernika by Picasso, for example. Since I was very little I loved film and discovered its power to transform us. I would go by myself to the small neighborhood cinemas in the towns I lived, later I went a lot to Cinemateques. I would go to see art house films with my mother (Bergman, Pasolini, Herzog, Eisenstein, Tati, Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni and others) and action films with my dad (Sergio Leone, Coppolla, Scorcese). Now I try to make films that are entertaining and at the same time make us reflect about our collective human condition, our existence; films that provoke a transformation in the viewer and remind us of the interconnectedness of our existence.

DV – Please tell me about your entry into film. How did those early experiences as an assistant camera operator working with Ken Loach shape your craft and ideas about film making?

Diego – My parents could not pay for my film school studies abroad – there were no schools at the time in Spain – so I started working as a runner in film commercials in Barcelona, carrying coffee and water. I worked my way up to Production Manager with director Isabel Coixet, then moved to Madrid with the idea to work in films in the camera department so one day I could direct my own. Film is a visual medium and I wanted to learn the craft through the camera department.

Having no family in the business, it was very hard to get a job. But I spoke English, and knew how to load film magazines, and after one year cleaning camera cases at rental facilities, I got an opportunity to work in Land & Freedom with Ken Loach, a film about the utopian anarchist militias crushed by the fascists and communists. I had seen most of his films, loved Raining Stones, Hidden Agenda. I was so happy, so incredibly lucky to get such a job in my first feature film. I worked on three films with him, and his method and mastery deeply influenced me forever.

Later, when I directed The Golden Dream, I applied a lot of what he taught me: giving voice to the oppressed; making films that tell stories with a clear, well-articulated but not preachy political view; only placing the camera where a human being would be, at eye level – no dollies, no cranes; simplicity of form; filming in chronological order; working with real people from real locations; not letting the actors know the story; using the camera as an observer of events as close to life as possible; making films that are very close to life. I shot The Golden Dream on super16mm (a classic BBC documentary format) with non-actors, making the journey with real migrants in real trains, so the film and acting develops organically, with a well-structured dramatic narrative, but rewriting the dialogues with the actors as I read them the scenes five minutes before filming. I tried to take the best from documentary and the best from fiction.

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DV – By 2000 you were a camera operator in Los Angeles, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars like Oliver Stone and Al Pacino on the set of Any Given Sunday. Why did you go to America? How did the Hollywood movie industry affect you and your ideas about film-making?

Diego – I grew up listening to jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, classic rock & roll, and watching US films: George Stevens’ Shane, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Preminger’s Fallen Angel, Frankenheimer’s Seconds, Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Lynch’s Eraserhead, Mallicks’s Badlands, and so many other great films from masterful directors. The American dream was inevitably a part of me. I dreamt of going to where the industry was, and learning from experienced craftsmen. Working my way up the ladder in the camera department made sense to me; I thought that would allow me to make a living as I developed my own projects, and it did. So in the early ‘90s, when Isabel Coixet wanted to shoot a film in Portland called Things I Never Told You, I offered to work on it for free, as I didn’t have a work permit. After the film, I moved to LA and had a really hard time. I was just one of the thousands that arrived every day, undocumented, non-union. Then my mother died. So I went back to Barcelona, dealt with the whole thing, painfully emptied her house and decided to escape, to migrate to the US, to change completely my surroundings as I followed my dream of becoming a film director one day.

After quite a few hardships, thanks to camera assistant David Aquino, and Paul Cameron and Malik Sayeed, I was able to get a visa, join Local 600 in the camera department, and work for over five years in the industry non-stop. One of the films I worked on was Any Given Sunday with Oliver Stone. It was a huge production, a really hard experience, very long hours, very stressful, with too many cameras everywhere, 14 sometimes, and people getting fired every day. Then I remembered why I got into film in the first place. With the savings I earned, I entered the American Film Institute, got inspired again and started making my own films. When I graduated I combined working for others as a camera operator with making my own short films and researching and writing my feature film ideas. It was great because I got to work with other well-established directors like Tony Scott, Spike Lee, Gonzalez-Iñarritu, and Fernando Meirelles. Not only was I in the midst of telling the story with the camera, I could also observe how they did things and ask myself how would I direct the actors, how would I shoot a scene. After working in over 27 films, where form was sometimes very much the focus, I went back to Ken Loach’s method and simplicity. I wanted to focus on content, not the magician’s tricks we can make.

I’m very grateful to all the filmmakers I had the opportunity to learn the craft from.

DV – What brought you to Mexico City? Was it a difficult transition?

Diego – I started feeling empty in the US. From the time I first lived in the US twenty years ago, I often travelled to Mexico and that’s where I found inspiration, a culture close to mine, but at the same time completely different, full of contradictions. On one of my trips in 2002, while making a documentary about a transvestite kid in a ghetto in Sinaloa, I met a taxi driver and became good friends with him. He invited me to live at his home with his family, which was next to the railroad tracks. So I moved in. Every day migrants would come and we would give them food and water while they told us their stories, their hardships, their dreams. I felt they were heroes, sacrificing their lives to help their loved ones. I found I could learn a lot from them, so I started a research process that lasted over seven years, listening to them so I could tell their story. I followed the railroad tracks in Mexico and the border towns; I went to US prisons and deportation centers for children; I felt their hopes, their suffering, the hypocrisy of authorities from both sides, the absurdity of the wall.

2002 was also the year I had a short film called A Table is A Table in a showcase at the Cannes Film Festival, and while there I saw Japón by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I was blown away by its power.

Eventually around 2007 I decided to move to Mexico City to focus fully on The Golden Dream, to risk it all for my dream. It was extremely hard to convince people to produce a film that took such risks, with non-professional actors, hopping on the real trains with real migrants, taking the entire 4,000 kilometer journey. But I had some savings, and I persevered, and after a few years the winds started blowing in favor of the film. Thanks to many people that believed that this story had to be told, I was able to make it happen. Now I am a part of the Mexican film industry.

DV – Please talk a little about your short film I Want to Be a Pilot. What were you trying to achieve, and how were you trying to achieve it? How does Pilot pave the way for The Golden Dream?

Diego – It was my third short film and it was then I found the method I applied in TGD. After working in The Constant Gardener in Kenya, I wanted to make a film in Kibera. That’s all I knew. Then I remembered a 1939 John Ford interview where he said: in the future filmmakers will go into communities, listen to the people and find what stories need to be told. Then, based on their testimonies they will write the scripts and go back there so the people can act on them. I liked a lot Ford’s advice and it made sense to me.

Our basecamp for the film The Constant Gardener was next to a school for orphans. So I got together with 50 orphan children and listened to them for one full day, one by one. I just listened, felt overwhelmed and asked myself how I could help them. They told me their sorrows, their problems and when I asked about their dreams they all said: “I want to be a pilot.” As I was leaving it hit me; I started crying and writing the poem based on their words. Then I thought, “I’ll concentrate their testimonies in one kid with the very sad look in his eyes.” Then the film was created, a mix between their longing and mine, a mix between documentary and fiction, a mix between poetry and narrative.

I decided to do the same process in The Golden Dream. I would concentrate 600 migrant testimonies in four kids. I would take the best from fiction (dramatic structure, reenactment of reality, higher budgets) and the best from documentary (non actors, real migrants, real locations). And I thought, what if Omondi (the protagonist of I Want to Be a Pilot) were Latin-American and decided to go in search of his dream? What would he encounter in our modern globalized world? What kind of world have we created for youngsters that search to realize their dreams?

DV – Is The Golden Dream a proper translation of the Spanish title La jaula de oro?

Diego – The direct and literal translation of the title in English does not mean much and I don’t like it. In Spanish, for Mexicans and Central-Americans, “La jaula de oro” is a metaphor of the US, a prison that you enter because you look for gold, money you need. It represents this paradox and the trap the US has become for many. While the US, Europe and Latin-American elite create the conditions that provoke migration, they only focus on repression, incarceration and militarization of borders. The title La jaula de oro comes from the ballad of Los Tigres del Norte. The Golden Dream is the UK title and I’m thinking of combining it with the original Spanish in the US, so migrants know it’s their film. I like the focus on the dream, their hope.

DV – In your Press Kit you say the movie is about immigration. Why have you focused on this subject?

Diego – I am not sure if stories find oneself or one finds stories. A resonance happens, an attraction and you follow it. Most likely it has something to do with the fact that I am a migrant who departed twenty years ago looking for a dream. It has to do with my disappointment with the American dream, with my longing for paradise on earth, with the hypocrisy I witnessed towards migrants in the US and many other things that make you want to express yourself through others. Like poet Antonio Porchia says: “I will navigate through other people’s oceans until I shipwreck in mine”

DV – There’s an important business aspect to film making. How did you go about getting backers?

Diego – Producers were very scared of this film, it was too radical in its approach and theme. Prior to that I tried to get funding in the US, which was absolutely impossible without name actors. Plus its point of view was critical of US policies. In Mexico I had over four different producers. Then I received support from the Cannes Film Festival Cinefondation in 2010, and it was like touching the project with a magic wand. I met the producers of the film, they liked the idea quite a bit and were brave. Machete and Animal de Luz are their production company; Kinemascope Films is my company. So we partnered.

DV – Please tell us how you cast your fine young actors.

Diego – I wanted to talk about migration as an economic issue. So I said, let’s look for them in the most impoverished rural and urban communities in Guatemala and Mexico, let’s give them a voice. Thanks to organizations that worked there, like Caja Ludica in Guatemala City and Celali in Chiapas, we found them. I asked them to dance, I asked them if they wanted to go to US and why; I would give them a situation to improvise. I was looking for raw carbon to polish and flourish. You look for people that are also fascinating to watch, people that have power in their eyes, their gaze is the key.

DV – Your style is understated. In one scene, for example, Sara and Samuel perform a dance and afterwards Juan passes the hat. What kind of dance are they doing? Why is it not important to know the details?

Diego – In the film the scene happens too fast, but it’s a layer that I believe unconsciously has an effect. The mime show represents the fight between two territories. There is a line drawn in the ground and they argue and fight over it until they both die. I wanted to convey its absurdity, and its part of the film’s theme. Behind the migration issue there is an issue of the fight for the territory and its resources. The film tells the story of the clash between an indigenous -and its cosmogony- and a mixed race Guatemalan who believes in the American consumerist model. I learned that way of articulating the idea when I saw the Manifest Destiny painting “American Progress”, where the goddess lays railroad tracks, buildings, telegraph posts and other elements of “progress” as “savages” and wild animals run away.

That model is still in action nowadays, there always has to be a justification, an ideology for the occupation of a land and its resources. All empires do that. I wanted to reverse the globalization process, to have the kid who believes in the Western model be transformed and learn from the Indian instead of the other way around, to talk about what unites us beyond races, nationalities, languages, social classes.

DV – The film took years to make. Would you tell us a bit about the many obstacles and dangers you faced? At one point you had a gun put to your head.

Diego – The research part was the most dangerous. When you are almost alone walking on the railroad tracks, in places where there are lots of kidnappings or very violent places like in Guatemala’s slums. In Mazatlán, I met Vitamina, a drug dealer who thought I was from another gang. He was going to kill us; he put a gun to my head while his team surrounded us with AK-47’s. After a while I was able to convince him, and he spared my life, so I gave him a scene as homage. I heard he passed away a few years back of a heart attack when they kidnapped him and put him in a trunk of a car. I also had police put guns to our heads in Guatemala when someone from the neighborhood called them saying we were heavily armed.

Later on, you know what places to avoid and you get to meet and hire locals so they protect your cast and crew. That’s what you learn from those experiences.

DV – In one scene the train is rolling down the tracks and the teens run beside it and hop on. Did that actually happen? Did you ride the train yourself with crew?

Diego – That train was under our control, although it is the same train the migrants ride, and there are real migrants on it. We hired all migrants as extras and gave them a salary, food, water and a safe train to travel northbound. It made it all much more efficient and safe. I only had a few train days and had to maximize them. Making a film is a lot about learning to negotiate with time and money factors without compromising the essence.

DV – In another scene, soldiers stop the train and everyone runs for cover – how did you film that scene? It seems so real.

Diego – Part of what Ken taught me was to focus on the context that provokes the character’s behavior, always allowing them to behave and speak their own way. So I researched how migrants are caught by Mexican authorities, the traps they create, and we recreated it with real police and soldiers, with real migrants who have been in many raids, in one of the real locations where many raids have happened. I try to make films that have lots of truths: my truth, the kids’ truth, the migrants’ truth, the real journey’s truth; the truth of real locations including the factory in the US scene.

DV – The reality in Mexico of criminal gangs and corrupt cops running wild, of poverty and a dilapidated social infrastructure, somewhat resembles the post-Apocalyptic landscape Americans see in so many Hollywood movies. Why is it important for Americans to see the migrant reality without the standard, happy Hollywood resolution of a white-hatted hero vanquishing the bad guys?

Diego – There are two types of films, says Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea. Films that look to maintain the status quo, and films that try to transform it. Happy endings are an effective tool of propaganda because the spectator leaves feeling “everything is ok” and nothing needs to change. We want to give the viewer a spectacle, a powerful experience because that’s why he/she goes to the movies. But we want to shock them in a positive way; through cinema we can feel for another human being, we can leave transformed by the power of empathy, by the power of enriching your life by living through another. One of my favorite poets, Val del Omar, says the manipulation in cinema is only justified if there is a great poetic motivation, of uniting human beings. We have a big responsibility as dreamers of spectacles, as magicians of light and dark.

The sense of hopelessness in Hollywood is a form of manipulation as well, making you feel there is nothing we can do to change things. Not even a superstar or hero. Artists transform reality all the time; observe how a great piece of music, a poem, a dance, a novel can enhance your existence. By becoming conscious of collective issues we can change them, that is the origin of neorealist cinema. If we have a problem, will we solve it by evading it? Only by facing it, by feeling it we can transform it. I believe art has a function to heal and provoke evolution, consciousness.

DV – Why do migrants keep climbing on the train, despite the risks and, for many, the inevitable letdown?

Diego – First, if they can get there they will make over ten times more in the US. They are so desperate that they rather die trying. It is the same in Europe and Africa. It is a consequence of globalization and free trade agreements (while subsidies exist in the north) that have consistently destroyed national production. The US supported wars in Central America and did all it could to avoid social progress, and since the 1990s it has secretly dumped gang members in their territories. Some parts of the countries are extremely violent and unsafe to live; there are too many kidnappings, too much extortion. It is a domino effect of years of intervention that can only be solved by going to the root of its cause: lack of well paid jobs, excessive violence, drug and gun trade financed by the US. Migrants talk about extreme poverty and violence, about politicians stealing, about free trade agreements and the US destroying their economies with the complicity of corrupt elites.

Anybody would migrate if we were in their shoes, and that is what I wanted people to feel and think by seeing the issue and the journey through their eyes.

Many migrants asked me to tell their story so the people who are not migrants could understand them, and they were reaching out to other migrants, too, because if they had known what happened in the journey, most likely they would have not done it or done it in a different way.

I also wanted us to question the post-industrial model of “progress” and its extreme consumerist contemporary society, the focus only on economic terms, on materialism. Where is it taking us? Like in Marx Brother’s film Go West, while Groucho feeds the engine as they destroy the wagons: “More Wood! More Wood!”

DV – The Golden Dream has won lots of awards. How does that feel? What’s next? Will it be easier? Will you stay on same path?

Diego – It has won almost 70 awards so far. But it’s not why you make a film. I just focus on my feelings, my thoughts, the migrants’ testimonies, what I wanted to convey. You focus on each stage of the process and suddenly you are premiering in Cannes and then a year and a half goes by travelling around the world promoting the film. Now I am trying to settle down and go back to writing the next one. I also have lots of research; I hope to present it in 2017.

DV – Thank you, Diego.

Diego – Thank you Doug.

Doug Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA.

Douglas Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA.