The Golden Dream, directed by Diego Quemada-Díez

Warmth and compassion override the wretchedness in an authentic portrayal of illegal immigrants trying to enter the US, says Philip Kemp

June 26, 2014

The Golden Dream
Directed by Diego Quemada-Díez
Starring Brandon López, Rodolfo Domínguez, Karen Martínez
On general release in the UK from June 2014

“Up north everything is much better,” announces Guatemalan teenager Juan (Brandon López), setting out with two friends on the long dangerous journey through Mexico to the US. We can guess from the outset, of course, that he’s heading for major disillusionment; but not until the very end of this harrowing film do we see just how tragically misguided he’s been.

Of all the national frontiers in the world, the near-on 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico is perhaps the most socially, politically and emotionally fraught. Countless would-be immigrants, stigmatised as “illegals”, make the perilous sea crossings from Libya to Italy and from Indonesia to Australia; countless more attempt the gruelling overland trek from Iraq or Afghanistan to Greece; but nowhere else are the deprivations of the Third World and the deceptive affluence of the First juxtaposed more tantalisingly cheek-by-jowl than along the closely guarded line that divides Tijuana from San Diego, El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. Small wonder if despite the border patrols, the razor wire, the helicopters and the stun guns – not to mention the hazards of travelling through the murderous hell that northern Mexico has become in recent decades – so many optimistic indigents from Latin America head northwards each year in pursuit of the glittering dream.

Diego Quemada-Díez’s film – intended as “a cross between documentary and fiction” – isn’t by any means the first to tackle this subject. From Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) to Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009) and Rigoberto Pérezcano’s Norteado (2009), the hopes, struggles and defeats of those who try to reach the fabled paradise of Los Estados Unidos have attracted several film-makers. The Golden Dream (or La Jaula de Oro [The Golden Cage], to give its Spanish-language title) tells us, in factual terms, little that most of us probably didn’t already know; but Quemada-Díez’s scrupulously realist approach, his avoidance of sentiment and easy melodrama, give his film an impact and an immediacy that mark it out as exceptional – especially given that this is his feature debut. (Prior to this, he directed three shorts: one documentary and two fictional.)

In a slum neighbourhood of Guatemala City, three teenagers prepare to travel north: Juan, Samuel (Carlos Chajón) and Sara (Karen Martínez). We see Sara before a mirror cutting her hair and binding her breasts, planning to pass as a boy called Osvaldo; Juan sewing a precious stash of dollar bills into his jeans, then going to meet the other two near a huge garbage dump. What we don’t see are the expected scenes of tearful farewells from their families; if these three have parents or siblings, they’re irrelevant to the story. Here, as elsewhere, Quemada-Díez cuts out superfluous elements, and that goes for dialogue as well, which is terse and to the point. The first seven minutes of the action play out without any dialogue at all.

En route, the three are joined by Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), an indigenous Tzotzil from southern Mexico who doesn’t speak Spanish. Juan resents his presence, especially since Sara takes to him, and tries to chase him off, but without success. Once over the Mexican border they’re caught by the immigration cops, who rough them up, steal Juan’s prized boots and pack them off back to Guatemala. At this point Samuel drops out, but the other three stubbornly find their way back into Mexico and continue northwards. Not all of them will make it safely to the US, and even there the dream may prove a long way from attainable.

Karen Martínez in The Golden Dream

The Spanish-born Quemada-Díez learned his craft on several of Ken Loach’s films – Land and Freedom (1995), Carla’s Song (1996) and Bread and Roses (2000) – working his way up from clapper loader to camera assistant to camera operator, and he gratefully acknowledges that he’s adopted much of his mentor’s approach to film-making. He cast almost entirely from non-professionals, holding more than 3,000 auditions in some of the roughest districts of Guatemala City and – for Chauk – in villages of the Chiapas mountains. Filming in Super 16 on Kodak stock, using natural light wherever possible and eschewing zooms, cranes or tracking shots, he shot in sequence (as Loach always prefers to) in the actual locations depicted, never showing his actors the script in advance but allowing them to improvise much of their dialogue within each given situation. To these methods can be credited the film’s powerful sense of authenticity – and also to the detailed testimonies the director gleaned from some 600 real-life migrants, all of whom are thanked by name in the end credits.

Given its subject matter, The Golden Dream could easily have been a depressing experience: a sententious dirge on behalf of the wretched of the Earth. That it’s no such thing is thanks largely to two factors. Given his apprenticeship on the camera-operating side of film-making, it’s not surprising that Quemada-Díez has an acute eye for visual impact, and for all the harrowing ordeals the youngsters and their fellow-migrants undergo, we’re reminded that their trajectory takes them through some startlingly beautiful landscapes, often presented by director of photography María Secco in extensive wide angle. Certain shots, too, convey a wistful romanticism, as when we see a group of migrants, travelling as usual on the roof of a freight train snaking through Mexico, darkly silhouetted against the splendour of a tropical sunset.

Nor does the director try to force our sympathies by presenting the migrant experience in unrelievedly grim terms. Repeatedly we see the young trio, and their fellow travellers, attacked, beaten and exploited; they’re brutalised by border guards, hunted by immigration cops, forced into harsh labour in the cane-fields, robbed at gunpoint by bandits (and, in Sara’s case, worse than this) and menaced by human traffickers. But they encounter kindnesses too: a peasant hides them in his house from the immigration forces, workers in the fields throw fruit to them as the train passes, a few miles from the US border a priest distributes food and offers them shelter in a refuge. We witness a sense of solidarity among the migrant community, sharing food and water with each other on top of the train, passing around encouragement, advice and warnings. Throughout, it’s moving to see the courage and determination of these vulnerable youngsters in the face of every setback and danger and, in the latter part of the film, the trust that gradually replaces the initial hostility between Juan and Chauk, to the point where the Hispanic boy will lay his life on the line for the despised “Indian”. Above all, the film is illuminated by the warmth and compassion that Quemada-Díez, as co-writer and director, evidently feels for his characters and what they represent.

“The train”, he’s been quoted as saying, “is a metaphor for progress, a fundamental part of the assembly line in an industrial structure; it carries all of the raw materials needed to feed the great machine and, in the most dehumanising way possible, brings cheap and utterly disposable labour.”

Against this dehumanising process, his work aims to restore human faces and individual identities to these raw materials, showing them and their thousands of fellow “illegals” as anything but “disposable”. In doing so, he’s created a film that, while denying us the easy comfort of a happy ending, paradoxically raises our spirits with its sense of affirmation in the face of all the odds. Loach can be proud of his disciple.

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