When Warner Bros conducted a worldwide search a few years back to find the next Superman, it was a wonder that they didn't come across Cary Fukunaga. A dashingly handsome American-Japanese-Swedish director with slicked black hair and preppy looks, he brings to mind a 21st-century version of the comic-book hero as personified by the late Christopher Reeve.
But then again, if Fukunaga, and not Brandon Routh, had been chosen to star in Superman Returns, the world might not have discovered the true talents of this 32-year-old rising star. Fukunaga's feature debut, Sin Nombre, won the Best Director and Best Cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival this year, when the thriller-drama played in the US dramatic competition. After the festival, Fukunaga was hailed as a "big new talent" by Variety's chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, and he was snapped up by Universal and its specialty division Focus Features to write and direct films.
Sin Nombre tells the harrowing story of Mexican gangs controlling the illegal traffic of Central American immigrants entering the US on the roofs of freight trains. Fukunaga spent several years researching the film, which evolved out of his award-winning short Victoria Para Chino, which he made in 2003 while a graduate film student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. It was inspired by an article in The New York Times about 90 Mexican and Central American immigrants trapped and abandoned in frozen trailers as they were smuggled into the US. The film played at Sundance in 2005 and won prizes at 20 film festivals as well as a Student Academy Award.
While making Victoria, Fukunaga learnt much about the plight of these people and submitted a hastily written script for Sin Nombre to the Sundance Labs filmmaker programme, which he was selected for in 2006. Filming involved multiple trips south of the border, a dangerous train ride with gang members, and several visits to Latin American prisons. By the end of it all, Fukunaga felt like one of the gang.
"I had this irrational sensation to want to stay with them. There was so much comradeship and solidarity," he says, adding that his own experience growing up in California was worlds apart from this reality. (Although, thanks to his Latino step-father, he spent time as a child in Mexico.) After meeting with the gang members several times, Fukunaga narrowed down his selection to a group with whom he thought he could create enough trust to make a film. "There have been a lot of sensationalist stories in the press about these gangs," he said. "It took a couple of years for them to open up to me."
The film focuses on two Central American immigrants, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Casper (Edgar Flores), who travel from Honduras, through Mexico, and into America in a dangerous journey taken by an estimated 70,000 immigrants each year. Casper is a henchman in one of the gangs that work the trains for money from immigrants who sometimes lose their lives in the process of making this trip. (Indeed, when Fukunaga made the journey, his train was stopped by bandits and a man was killed.) At the heart of the film is a love story between Sayra and Casper, making the political personal.
"Part of me developing as a filmmaker was being able to move from a journalistic perspective to a personal perspective," said Fukunaga. "This is not an anthropological or historical study of gangs and illegal immigration." The title Sin Nombre, or Without Name, refers to gang members who become nameless once in prison and also to those who lose their identity by crossing the border without papers." If they die, there are no names on the graves. Often times, people would fall off a train or disappear," said Fukunaga, adding that the most scary moment while directing the film was the prospect of such an incident happening on his watch. "At one point, we had 2,000 extras on top of the trains, which were moving, and any one of them could have fallen off and broken a leg," he said.
Fukunaga met many desperate characters during his research, including a young boy trying to cross the border for the third time to be reunited with his mother, who had left three years earlier. "The US has made these people immigrants," said Fukunaga, adding that: "My family are all immigrants. The government has used words like 'enemies' to enforce tougher laws. Most countries rely on immigrants for the work force."
Fukunaga's mother is Swedish American and his father is third generation Japanese American. Fukunaga was born in Oakland, California, and graduated with a degree in history from the University of Santa Cruz, before receiving a master's in fine arts from NYU. A big part of the film's appeal lies in its bold visual style. The vibrant greens of the landscape and the tanned bodies baking in the sun look at times like a Medieval tapestry come to life. "I wanted to go back to the look of films in the 1970s," said Fukunaga, before getting technical and talking about high contrast, longer takes, and zoom techniques typical of the 1970s. "The look is specific to that era."
In fact, it was largely Fukunaga's keen visual sense which lead him to become a filmmaker in the first place. "When I was growing up I wanted to be one of three things: a fighter pilot, an architect or a filmmaker. My eyes went bad so I couldn't be a fighter pilot. Ultimately, the visual world influenced me more." This talent hasn't gone unnoticed. On the back of his Sundance success, he wrote an adaptation of Beasts of No Nation, a novel about a child soldier in an unnamed African civil war, for Focus Features, which could be his next film. He currently has two untitled projects in development and has been studying musicals.
Sin Nombre was financed by Focus Features, which released the film in the US in March, where it made $2.5 million (Dh9m). It was produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, among others. It is set to be released internationally over the summer. In another mark of his potential, Fukunaga received several major grants, including Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 2008, the John H Johnson Film Award and a 2005 Princess Grace Foundation Fellowship. He also received a Katrin Cartlidge Foundation Bursary in 2007, which helped with the film. "I wanted to make a film about something that was real and important and happening now," he said.
And he's not alone. Sin Nombre is one of a number of recent features to explore immigration. This includes the Harrison Ford starrer Crossing Over, a tragic-comic pastiche of stories about people immigrating to the US. The film includes one particularly shocking storyline about a young girl whose family is ripped apart after she gives a presentation in her local high-school about the impact of the September 11 attacks and is subsequently deported.
Other examples include the comical Eden Is West from Costa Gavras, which tells the tale of a young man trying to make it from an unnamed country to Paris during which he finds himself stranded at a high-end hotel and part of a search party looking for himself. Another of this year's Sundance titles, Amreeka, follows an immigrant single mother from Palestine and her son living in the Midwest. Although there have been several other films from South America focusing on the immigration theme such as Maria Full of Grace, Sin Nombre was noted by McCarthy for departing from earlier films because it examines the lives of the subjects before they leave for the US, which may have something to do with the amount of time Fukunaga spent with his subjects in their home countries. "I'm used to putting a camera in someone's face. It was so different to put the camera down and see with your own eyes," he said.