Sin Nombre has it all - great acting, beautiful cinematography, powerful themes, and amazing realism. The realism is no accident. Young filmmaker Cary Fukunaga spent months in Mexico, interviewing both immigrants and gang members about their experiences. He shot on location, and many cast members are nonprofessionals. For example, Edgar Flores, in the lead role as a member of the Chiapas chapter of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, is straight off the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Despite the specific setting of the tumultuous U.S.-Mexico border, Sin Nombre addresses powerful and universal themes of damnation and redemption. At least, that's how I saw it. In an interview, Fukunaga himself said he sees it as being about family - "the disintegration and recreation of the family unit in its unique and varying forms."
The plot centers around a chance and fateful encounter between gang member Willy and a 15-year-old Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is riding north through Mexico atop a train. Though Sayra's journey, viewers get an appreciation for the intense dangers faced by Central Americans trekking toward the promised land.
Without giving away anything, I can tell you a bit of background on how the film came about. Fukunaga, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, was in film school in New York when he read a New York Times story on a group of Mexican and Central American immigrants who died of asphyxiation and heat exhaustion while trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. His short 2004 documentary about that case, "Victoria Para Chino," won multiple film awards.
That project evolved into Sin Nombre, as Fukunaga explained in an IndieWire interview. Doing the research, he said, "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."
Against the advice of friends, Fukunaga gained intimacy with his topic by taking the same harrowing train-top ride that he would film. On his first ride, with 700 Central American immigrants, the train was attacked within three hours:
"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.... 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. [Later] I learned the police had found the body of a Guatemalan immigrant, shot and abandoned.... Nothing could have driven home the sensation of fear and impotence than what I had felt first hand with those immigrants."
Fukunaga's willingness and ability to see through the eyes of others probably owes much to his upbringing. Fukunaga is described in an L.A. Times article as "a wandering spirit with a Japanese father, a Swedish mother, a Chicano stepdad and an Argentine stepmom [who] can't be reduced to the sum of his parts, ethnic or otherwise. Growing up, he shuffled from the suburbs to the country to the barrio ('Crips and Bloods, people getting shot') to the East Bay's hillside bourgeois enclaves. His family, he says, always has been a 'conglomeration of individual, sort of displaced people,' recombinations of relatives and step-relatives, blood kin and surrogate kin, parents and what he calls "pseudo-parents" who treated him like a son."
With this background, Fukunaga was able to capture not only the immigrant experience, but the pathos of gang life in Central America and Mexico, with brutality and hopelessness transmitted from generation to generation. Sin Nombre doesn't give the history or context for the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which at 100,000-strong is widely considered one of the most fastest-growing and dangerous gangs in the world. But you can get that elsewhere on the Web.
In brief, the MS-13 is an outgrowth of the 1980s war in El Salvador, which led to a massive migration of up to two million refugees into the United States. Many settled in the Ramparts area of Los Angeles, where the gang was founded. Strict U.S. immigration policies in more recent years have paradoxically worsened the gang problem, allowing the MS-13 to gain footholds in Central America and Mexico. The MS-13 is known for its vivid tattoos, but some say members are moving away from tattoos because they so brilliantly illuminate gang membership for authorities. A documentary on the MS-13, Hijos de la Guerra (Children of the War), can be previewed at hijosdelaguerra dot com.
Sin Nombre is getting universal acclaim, and richly deserves the directing and cinematography awards it garnered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.