The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film "[t]ough and beautiful," the USA Today "a powerful and wrenching thriller," giving it fours stars out of four. The Denver Post characterizes it as "vivid and haunting," while The Washington Post praises the film as "an elegant, heartbreaking fable, equal parts Shakespearean tragedy, neo-Western and mob movie but without the pretension of those genres."
The movie receiving these fawning reviews is Sin Nombre (Without a Name), directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. His first feature-length film—"[o]ne of the most memorable directorial debuts in recent memory" according to the Post—it won the California-born and -raised Fukunaga the directing and cinematography award in the dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
There is certainly much to recommend the film. It tells a visually compelling tale that takes the viewer on a gripping journey from the streets of
The movie revolves around a young member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, Willy, and a young Honduran woman, Sayra, who is trying to reach the
While the story in and of itself is quite engrossing, it presents a largely one-dimensional view of
Apart from a single reference to the gang’s presence in
Given the focus of the film, it is perhaps far too much to expect Sin Nombre to address such matters. But is begs the question of what the movie—or, more precisely, the filmmaker—is trying to accomplish by focusing on gang violence and its intersection with the Central American migrant passage through
A question-and-answer session with Fukunaga and Focus Features CEO, James Shamus, following a recent showing of the film at
Shamus somewhat cryptically called the film "radically political" (suggesting that it was so in a progressive sense), and praised the fact that it gives voice to people rarely heard in feature films—Latinos (which is like lauding a film on the Bloods and the Crips for giving voice to African Africans). He also gushed about how the film is bringing large numbers of Latinos into art-house theaters, evidence of its cross-over appeal.
Fukunaga indirectly took issue with Shamus’s suggestion that Sin Nombre was political. "I didn’t write it as a political film," the filmmaker asserted. "I wasn’t trying to change anyone’s mind." Instead, he stated that he wanted viewers to have an "experience" and to "make up their own minds." The question is, what is it that he wants people to make up their own minds about?
In published interviews, Fukunaga makes clear that the migrant journey—specifically the dangerous odyssey by train from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the U.S.-Mexico divide—and the violence and suffering that surround it is his intended focus. Yet, this is at best a secondary aspect of the film, as Sin Nombre privileges the gang-related drama to a great extent. And in doing so in the way that it does, the film paints a picture of
Undoubtedly there is a lot of brutal violence—perpetrated by Mexican authorities, gang members, and bandits—associated with the migrant passage from southern Mexico to the United States. And, in addition to the deaths and injuries brought about by such brutality, innumerable migrants lose their lives or limbs each year by falling off and underneath what many call the "train of death" or "the beast." Sin Nombre provides a valuable glimpse into these varied forms of violence, but the film doesn’t give the viewer a sense of the frequent nature of the fatalities and injuries associated with the train itself.
At the same time, Sin Nombre makes invisible the
In addition to such misrepresentation, the movie effectively exculpates the
In the 1980s, during a northward exodus of Central American refugees, Washington put considerable pressure on Mexico, and assisted Mexican government efforts, to crackdown on third-country nationals migrating without authorization through Mexico to get to the United States. Since the 1990s, U.S. authorities have intensified such pressures and efforts, while extending them geographically so that the U.S. boundary and immigration enforcement apparatus is today effectively present in Mexico and in countries well beyond. In other words, the arduous and dangerous journey across Mexico that the film helps bring to light has been made in no small part in Washington, D.C.
Given this reality—and the almost omnipresent and highly charged nature of present-day debates surrounding immigration and boundary enforcement—it is, at best, pure fantasy to think that one can avoid politics in making a film that is to a significant degree about migration from Mexico and Central America. The title of one of Howard Zinn’s book says it best: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.
To pretend that you can be otherwise facilitates the myopic thinking that led Fukunaga to make a film that purports to be a sympathetic portrayal of the migrant passage, but that ends up obscuring much and inadvertently fueling some of the flames which underlie the very making of the journey’s fatal obstacles that seem to concern him.
It is easy to decry migrant deaths and the many forms of suffering endured by unauthorized migrants as they make the dangerous trek to the
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at
Alfonso Gonzales, "Rethinking U.S. Involvement in Central America’s War on Gangs,"
See, for example, indieWire, "Cary Joji Fukunaga on ‘Sin Nombre': Border Crossings, Authenticity, and Authorship," indieWire, March 17, 2009 (available online at http://www.indiewire.com/article/cary_joji_fukunaga_on_sin_nombre_border_crossings_authenticity_and_authorsh/).
 See N.C. Aizenman, "Meeting Danger Well South of the Border ," The Washington Post, July 8, 2006: A1+; Velia Jaramillo, "Hipocresía migratoria," Processo.com.mx, August 14, 2006 (available online at http://www.proceso.com.mx/noticia.html?nid=43026&cat=0#); and Jeremy Schwartz, "Mexico’s Southern Border Snares Central American Migrants,"; The News & Observer (North Carolina), March 10, 2007 (available online at http://www.newsobserver.com/689/v-print/story/552036.html).
 Christine Evans, "Train Jumping: A Desperate Journey," Palm Beach Post, November 11, 2006; a compelling photo essay—with audio—accompanies the article (available online at http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/content/nation/epaper/2006/11/12/trainjumpers.html). See also Mariana Van Zeller, "Death Train," Current TV, Nov. 25, 2005; and "Amputee Shelter," Current TV, Jan. 4, 2006. They are available online, respectively, at http://current.com/items/76273562_death-train.htm and http://current.com/items/76279162_amputee-shelter.htm
 See Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home,
 Ginger Thompson, "
 See Michael Flynn, "Dondé está la frontera?" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 58, No. 4, July/August 2002: 24-35.