At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Diego Quemada-Díez’s tough, compassionate tale of three border-crossing teens.
Following, quite literally, the fates and footsteps of a small group of Guatemalan teens as they pilgrimage “to the North”, Diego Quemada-Díez’s La jaula de oro is an unsentimentally spare tale of fragile friendship and hard pressed hope. Not so much a grass is always greener fable—though there is understandably a bit of this in the air—the film illustrates the utter lack of desirable choices in the lives of society’s poor and disenfranchised; they truly are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Juan, Sara, and Samuel are three teens who want out of the slum they inhabit and so, following currents of rumour, join the slow inexorable flow of humanity on its journey North toward the whispered promise of a different life in the United States. Not far into their journey they pick up an unexpected travelling companion in Chauk, a young machete wielding Guatemalan ‘Indian’ who speaks no Spanish. These young companions find themselves constantly thrust into adult situations and, like all the other travellers, with no way of distinguishing potential help from harm. The narrative, mirroring the journey, gets turned around and fractured as the kids find themselves saved from the police, only to be co-opted into hard farm labour, or gaining a safe ride atop a train roof only to be grabbed by local gangsters or human traffickers. Small moments of good fortune they encounter, though felt, are soon driven out of memory by violence and exploitation met at every other turn; in this world youth affords no protection. And yet what other option do they have? The risks of the journey, whilst not necessarily preferable, are not much worse than the status quo. All they have is each other and the determination to keep going.
A strength of Quemada-Díez’s feature is that, like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff or Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries, it is completely encased in the dust of the roads and lanes along which its young protagonists journey. And if the journey has a somewhat vérité stamp to it, a quick perusal of the end credits shows a location listing which basically maps the actual journey North from Guatemala, through the various sections of Mexico, and across into the USA. The sole subtitled part of the credits, precursing a lengthy list of names, thanks the over 600 actual migrants who allowed the film to join their travels. So yeah, La Jaula de Oro is the real thing. Far from being a drab handheld affair—the film does have its share of handheld camera work but this style doesn’t predominate—the director and his cinematographer María Secco make excellent use of the hard light and arid environment for many lengthy wider shots. The filmmakers effectively utilise the contrasting closed-in versus spacious visuals to underpin the unsettled tonal thread running through the film. These kids can’t quite settle, even when things seem to be turning for the better. They enjoy the moment but take each day, and event, as it comes. Talk about being forced to push the ‘emotional reset button’ over and over again. Although I could have done without the repeating prefigurative dream motif of snow falling which the director uses to chapter the story—even if it doesn’t really detract from the impact of the film.
The young cast give exemplary performances, never once breaking the illusion that this is indeed their lives. Karen Martínez, who plays Sara with a natural warmth and spirit despite her caution, and Brandon López as determined de facto group leader Juan, who subtly evinces the felt burden of responsibility, are particular standouts anchoring the dramatic centre of the film. The pacing is on the slow side (not a negative to me) yet maintains a good flow of tension and release. If narrative proceedings can be accused of being somewhat grim, the tone of the film holds enough joy and lightness alongside its ample quota of resignation to keep things from getting too bogged down. For a deceptively simple road movie, La jaula de oro digs its thematic hooks into some deeply interesting subjects, shedding light as it does on the broader context of (illegal) immigration, and holds its own as a work of worthwhile formal filmmaking skill. I look forward to Diego Quemada-Díez’s second feature and beyond.