‘Sin Nombre’: Strangers on a Train

BY Arts Desk  April 15, 2009 at 5:31 PM EST

While all independent filmmaking projects could be considered dangerous in these economic times, what young American director Cary Joji Fukunaga had to do to make “Sin Nombre” is a more literal interpretation. “I risked my neck to make this movie,” he has written, and the film is a testament to his immersion in its story.

Shot entirely in Spanish, “Sin Nombre” (translation: “Nameless”) tracks two young characters as they journey north with other immigrants through Central America on top of freight trains bound for the U.S. While the train carries its own dangers — bad weather and the constant possibility of death or injury, signified by the barely marked graves they see along the way — the story also offers a window into the world of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a notorious gang in Central America with outposts in major cities across the U.S. Fukunaga immersed himself in both worlds — riding the trains with immigrants, gaining access to MS-13 members in and out of prison — and his film bears the weight of both realities.
'Sin Nombre' from Focus Features'
“Sin Nombre” follows Casper, a handsome but reticent gang member trying to protect his naive girlfriend from his violent MS-13 world. As he helps inculcate young Smiley, a neighborhood boy, into the family of the gang through a tough initiation process, we see the doubt and budding rage stirring in Casper. As he and Smiley accompany the gang’s leader in the routine robbing of immigrants atop freight trains bound for Texas, Casper commits a drastic act that requires him to leave everything behind and sets the vengeful gang on his trail.

On that moving train, Casper’s story collides with Sayra’s, a young girl on her way to the U.S. with a father – deported from the U.S. and determined to return – she has never known. When, on the same train car, Casper’s rage boils over into a single act of bravery, Sayra falls for him, refusing to acknowledge the very real bounty on his head.

“Sin Nombre” is Fukunaga’s second film about the immigrant experience. His first (his student film from New York University), “Victoria Para Chino,” aimed to put the audience through the experience of riding inside a trailer with immigrants for 10 minutes. Not fluent in Spanish during production of that film, his fluency has improved significantly since then, but he told me “even when your Spanish isn’t perfect, you can sense honesty in a performance, and truthfulness.”

That honesty is also central to the film’s aesthetic, which Fukunaga wanted to be naturalistic. He did not want to make a typical post-MTV generation film, he told Art Beat, so “Sin Nombre” has no quick edits, shaky handheld camera shots or overly saturated images. In March, it won directing and cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It is playing in theaters across the country.

When I spoke with Cary last week, he told me about the images that influenced him (1980s photojournalism and war photography from El Salvador and Nicaragua) and explained how he gained access to MS-13 (gifts of grilled chicken and india ink for tattoos).

Cary Fukunaga, Focus Features

[Listen to the full conversation here]