reviewed by Rob Munday.
A teenager stalks dusty favela streets. This is Juan. He goes inside to pack his bag and stash a roll of dollar bills. Samuel abandons his work looking for slim pickings in an endless mountain of rubbish. Sara cuts her hair short and straps down her breasts to become ‘Osvaldo’ – a safer option for the obstacles that lie ahead. So begins the debut feature from writer/director (and former cameraman) Diego Quemada-Diez.
The Golden Dream here is to get to America, the Promised Land where a better life awaits. Our juvenile heroes often say they are simply going “North” as if heading up represents a higher purpose.
As they set out walking along overgrown train tracks you can’t help recall Stand By Me and we will gain similar affection for our protagonists (although Richard Dreyfuss and his Amstrad remain thankfully absent). This is a classic journey movie, both a coming of age tale and a comment on the wider politics of America’s attitude toward its southern neighbours. This is shown by the appearance of Chauk, a Tzotzil Indian who speaks no Spanish. Juan’s attitude to Chauk mirrors a wider racism in believing this unknown quantity must have base instincts and no redeeming purpose. But Chauk is a kind soul and a counter to the narrow viewpoint of the others.
The trains drive the film. They lumber restlessly through the lush splendour of the Guatemalan landscapes and beyond. They set the pace, create a soundtrack, and plant the thought: What is the real cargo? Is it the contents of the carriages or the hundreds of potential low paid workers who ride on the top breathing the humid air as they dream of the north?
The film rests on young shoulders but the acting is pitch perfect (and was rewarded with Best Ensemble Cast at last years Cannes Film Festival). The characters feel real and truthful throughout. Often they remain silent as we observe and yet their stillness and the thoughts that churn behind their eyes say everything. Diego Quemada-Diez has worked with many acclaimed directors (including Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Fernando Meireles, Spike Lee) and the influence of Loach is evident in the clear-eyed humanity, support of the underdog and belief in the redeeming power of hope.
Whether riding the train or watching the internal conflicts of a life in transit this is cinema that moves and Diego Quemada-Diez is a director to keep your eye on.