For their first films most directors look inwards and keep it close and personal in order to say something of note. But Cary Fukunaga whose feature debut Sin Nombre opens next week, took the opposite route.
The director, born to a Swedish mother and Japanese father, crafted a film depicting Hispanic immigrant and gang experiences in Mexico.
Gleamed from a magazine article he read, Fukunaga saw themes of revenge and redemption in the harrowing journey to cross the border.
“It seemed like a modern day wild west,” he says.
The film, which screened at Sundance last year, follows two characters over several days. Sayra’s estranged father returns from the States to take her and his brother away from Central America through Mexico and back to New York.
Willy, who as a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang goes by El Casper, finds his allegiances challenged after a high-ranking member accidentally kills Willy’s girlfriend while trying to rape her.
Their lives intertwine after both find themselves hitching a train headed to the Mexico-U.S. border, dodging patrol guards and gang members out for Willy’s head along the way.
The film’s title literally translates to “the nameless,” says Fukunaga, and refers to a memorial cross planted on the border between California and Mexico. The cross is dedicated to the people who die trying to cross the boundary. Although it doesn’t appear in the finished film, Fukunaga wanted to keep it for the title.
“It works for both the gangsters and the immigrants,” he says. “I thought it was a touching detail.”
The Mara Salvatrucha gang depicted in the film is real, says Fukunaga. He spoke with many former and current gang members in order to recreate the details of gang life in Mexico. He started in prisons, “stubbornly” returning over and over again for two years interviewing members.
“I think they were happy to get out of their cell,” he says. Eventually, after many visits and “a lot of gift giving” he earned their trust and got access to members still on the street.
He hasn’t heard any response to the film from any actual members, but as a wide release for the film draws closers, he says he’s just trying to keep that out of mind.