Thursday 17 July 2014

Pursuit of happiness: "The Golden Dream"

Along with superhero movies, migration tales will go down as the growth industry of early 21st century cinema, and in the conjunction of the two you might see a sign, damning or otherwise, of the direction the Western world is heading in. Diego Quemada-Diez's The Golden Dream follows in the footsteps of Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre in plotting a quest for what is, both literally and figuratively, upward mobility: that of a quartet of teenagers heading from their Guatemalan home to what they hope will be a bright new dawn in the North. I hardly need brief you that their progress will not exactly be smooth, a fact reflected in the high drop-out rate; the attentions of grafting local police, the whims of gangs controlling the territories the four pass through, and the last-act arrival of the migra (border patrol) will all, eventually, exert the heaviest of tolls.

One of Quemada-Diez's aims here appears to be explicitly political: to dramatise how the war currently being waged in some quarters on economic migrants has become as pointless (and, in some cases, as deadly) as the war long waged on drugs. If we are going to treat people as downtrodden serfs - getting them to sew our shirts and stitch our trainers, and then expecting them to sift through our discarded packaging for any recompense - we shouldn't be surprised if they and their children make a run for it, or attempt to pull themselves up onto the same trains that carry this cargo from one territory to another, or if, upon arrival, they then rise up out of the sewers and try to grab themselves a piece of the real action. Since turbo-capitalism is apparently determined to deprive all but a select few of their homes, it may, in fact, be more humane - and almost certainly beneficial for the economy - for our leaders to secure these pilgrims' safe passage, rather than seeking to impede their progress.

Quemada-Diez served his apprenticeship under Ken Loach, and the latter's influence can be felt not just in the politics and the desire to roam widely while treading lightly, but in the film's remarkable economy of gesture. One shot of a sprawling Guatemalan rubbish dump is enough to suggest what these kids are escaping from; long stretches are reliant on faces rather than dialogue to convey character and mood. Heading up this expedition is Juan (Brandon López), whose fierce countenance, leavened with passing half-smiles, comes to stick with you, suggestive as it is of a single-minded determination to get from here to there; we're left to wonder whether his self-serving tendencies - pointed up in an early deviation to furnish himself with a pair of cowboy boots - are a liability or an asset on journeys such as these. (You could argue the marketplace now demands them.)

Juan makes an obvious yet appreciable contrast with the open-faced "Osvaldo" - actually, Juan's girlfriend Sara (Karen Martinez), introduced taping down her breasts and cutting off her hair so as to pass as a boy, for a girl in a dirt-poor country is, we learn (if we didn't already know), an easy target. Then there is Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), whose darker skin and non-existent Spanish mark him as an escapee from the rainforest - an outsider even within this band of outsiders, who tags doggedly along behind his contemporaries, seemingly in the hope of making new friends as much as anything. The facetime tactic has a devastating effect in an early moment of wordless despair when one of their party realises they don't have the courage or energy required to go any further, and must resign themselves to a shitty life picking through the cast-offs of never-more-distant rich folk - a small, slow-dawning moment that nevertheless has huge impact.

That's much the way of the film entire, as it happens. Where Sin Nombre had a sweep that showed exactly where Fukunaga was heading - to the crane shots of HBO's True Detective - the Quemada-Diez approach is intimate and hand-held: it seeks to get among these kids rather than merely observing their suffering, guided less by any grand romantic sense of trajectory than a simple desire to show what its subjects might actually do over the long-haul plod to the North. Juan steals a chicken from a farm out of abject hunger, only to falter when he realises he doesn't have it in him to kill the creature (a weakness, in this socio-economic context, and one that will come back to mock him come the finale); there's a lot of semi-purposeful wandering and drifting, as the leads scuff their shoes and hit things with sticks.

Quemada-Diez has a honed eye for such textures - the flaking metal of a rusting railcar door, a tangle of vines around a tree, how alien snow might look to anybody raised in heat and dust - and a critical attention to place may be another of the qualities he's inherited from Señor Loach: I'm thinking of one especially eloquent composition late on in which the fence separating a Mexican shantytown from the all-American scrublands adjacent to it dissects the frame with geometrical neatness, vividly dividing the world into haves and have-nots. It will be a rocky ride getting over it, and there may well be only cold comfort on the other side, yet this wholly compelling film permits us to feel every bump and chill alongside its subjects. Over this exceptional hour and forty minutes, Quemada-Diez redraws the map of the world, giving those at the very bottom every bit as much visibility as those of us lucky enough to have come out on top.

The Golden Dream is now showing in selected cinemas.

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