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Film Review

Sin Nombre

Our city is filled with illegal immigrants doing the hard, dirty jobs that few native born Americans want to do. Gardening, construction, the car wash on Divisadero, and many of our maids and nannies. They are so pervasive that they tend to become invisible to us. Do we ever think about how they got here? And why?  Cary Joji Fukunaga's powerful first film, Sin Nombre, forces us to understand. Fukunaga, from Southern California, has a Japanese American father and a Swedish American mother, so seems like an unlikely person to write and direct a film like this. He tells the story of two teenagers, Sayra, from a tiny village in Honduras, and Willy, a gang member from Chiapas, Mexico, who meet on a train headed north to Texas. Sayre is traveling with her father and uncle, to escape the grinding poverty in her village, hoping to join the rest of her family in New Jersey.  She had not seem her father for years, until he was deported back to Honduras. The film opens with a close look at the heavily tattooed gang members, then a brutal initiation of Smiley, a young boy, into the gang, La Mara Salvatrucha.  La Mara is a widespread, very violent Central American gang, now with members in many large US cities. The gang punch and kick the boy until he is nearly unconscious, then kiss him, and welcome him into the gang. But to become a full fledged member, he must kill someone in the opposing gang. And they happen to have one as a prisoner in a dog kennel.  His fate is horrible. Willy, whose gang name is Caspar, has befriended Smiley and treats him like a younger brother.  But Willy also has a secret girl friend that he has not told the gang leader about.  This is just the beginning of two riveting stories.

The cinematography is breath taking. There are so many unforgettable scenes, such as the train yards, with a ragged army of people sleeping on the tracks, waiting for the freight trains heading north. It finally appears, like a monster, with its headlight piercing the mist, illuminating scores of desperate people.  People climb on, up the ladders, to the top of the freight cars.  The tops of the freight cars are crowded with people, and distant shots of the entire train with their silhouettes are haunting. All this against a backdrop of often gorgeous landscape. In one particularly moving scene, the train passes a wooded hill with a Christ figure on top, and most are riveted at the sight, crossing themselves and praying. The train travels through small towns, where some welcome the immigrants with oranges thrown up to them, while children in other towns throw rocks, yelling at them to go home. The scenes of the immigrants crossing the various frontier rivers, first into Guatemala, then Mexico, are powerful. His closeups of the gang members are truly frightening. It is a glimpse of pure evil.  There is a documentary feel to much of the film, and we know we are seeing the bitter truth, often with sad things against a backdrop of beauty.  According to interviews with the film maker, he rode these trains, and filmed from them. The music is particularly good, almost to counter balance what we are seeing.  There is a large cast, some professionals, but most non actors, all of whom are outstanding and thoroughly convincing.

It is astonishing that this could be a first film, because its power, cinematographic skills, and narrative force are so accomplished. Sin Nombre is gritty, and often brutal. Fukunaga shows just how difficult the journey to a better life is, and how only the most determined and lucky make it.  Determination and luck, they must have both; one is not enough. The tension never subsides, and few who see this film will ever look at another Hispanic illegal alien without remembering Sayre.  I wish every American could see this great film as it would surely change the debate over immigration policy.  Just opened last weekend at the Kabuki, and like so many films with great cinematography, should be seen in a theater.

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