Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre at Sundance

SIN NOMBRE They say “write what you know,” an idea sure to have crossed director Cary Fukunaga’s mind while writing the script for his first feature film.

So questions naturally arose when the California native and New York University Film alum began work on his absorbing tale about a quest to sneak across the border as an illegal immigrant.

When questioned about his inspiration, Fukunaga attributes the idea to a tragic story he read in The New York Times about 90 Mexican and Central American immigrants trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. Nineteen dead from asphyxiation and heat exhaustion, including a father and his 5-year-old son. This was the tip of the director’s inquiry into the

subject. From there, a Truman Capote-style investigation took shape, beginning with extensive trips to Central America, which eventually turned into him taking a 30-hour train trip through Mexico with other people actually trying to cross over into the United States. This rather haphazard journalistic approach to a narrative film, revealed to the director a new way to sympathize beyond that extracted from the pages of a newspaper.

“What got me was that they were just trying to find a better life, and no one cared, no one knew where they were. They were lost souls,” says Fukunaga of the affecting article. He describes his own trip towards the border as eyeopening and disturbing, citing the breakdown of safety, during which people are left to survive according to their animal instinct, the only tool they have when attempting to escape the impoverishment of their underdeveloped country.

In Fukunaga’s original plan, he and his friends were all going to ride the train through Mexico. However, with everyone gathered together and the reality of the situation at hand, the danger inherent in the impending journey became increasingly difficult to deny. “After rethinking our plan, I ended up riding by myself for 30 hours,” explains Fukunaga of the journey taken after his first short film Victoria Para Chino. “It was a gruelling trip, in the heat, on top of a train, and I only did a portion of the journey. But it was a good way to hear people’s stories. You heard about young girls getting raped and no one doing anything about it; people dying. I was told there was someone shot in the car next to mine, involving something to do with gangs. I was so worn out from just [that] one part of the journey.”

Sin Nombre (Without a Name) follows Sayla (Paulina Gaitan), her father and uncle in Honduras, where they plan to make their way across the United States border to meet up with family in New Jersey. The suspense of the dangerous three week journey is heightened by the ever-present feeling that at least half of the potential crossers will be caught by border police or die. “Immigration stories typically take place right on the border, or deal with life once in the destination countries,” explains Fukunaga. “I wanted to do something that went through the journey before. Just trying to make it to the border is hard enough.”

The narrative intertwines with the story of two young gang members also on the train journey, who have to deal with the troubled life they are leaving behind, and the added danger of living as fugitives when faced with protecting Sayla, the young girl.

Fukunaga developed the script at the Sundance Director’s Lab after success of his TISCH school short Victoria Para Chino. Before going into pre-production― before he’d even finished the script―it was optioned by Focus Features in 2006.

“It all came together kind of naturally. It was kind of a dream, with Focus Features on board from the beginning,” remembers Fukunaga.

Overwhelmed by the attention his critical acclaim has brought him, including the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, Fukunaga has yet to catch his breath long enough to realize the excitement, let alone lock down a follow-up project. If his first one is any gauge, something tells me he won’t have much difficulty recruiting support for future projects.

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