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Interview: Sin Nombre film Director Cary Fukunaga. Words Anna Leach.

Director of knuckle-gnawing thriller Sin Nombre talks to Anna Leach about danger, research and why his next film is a musical.

Studiously modest, square-jawed and possessed of a sense of social responsibility that would make Nelson Mandela proud, Cary Fukunaga is the thinking indie kid’s film-maker.

The 32-year-old Californian has just written and directed a film about immigration and gangs in central America: Mexico and Honduras. It’s called Sin Nombre and it’s out in cinemas now.

It may sound like a worthy issue-led docu-feature but it’s actually pacy, sexy and a gripping watch. Reflecting all the danger and beauty of the central American countries where it’s set, the tight plot tracks two young characters: troubled gangster Casper escaping from the violent Mare gang he’s bound to and Kimberley travelling away from dead-end life in a Honduran suburb to join family in New Jersey.

Centring on a long bandit-ridden train journey from Honduras up to the US-Mexican border, it’s a knuckle-gnawing thriller, with landscape shots that swim out of some gap-year-from-heaven brochure and colour-saturated visuals.

But this is so much more than a standard thriller set in a topical location. Sin Nombre is given unusual authenticity by the five years Cary put into researching this film. Research that involved reading press archives and talking to academics, but also two years of visiting Mexican jails and slums, and several nights up on the roof of the border-bound train with migrants from Guatemala, during which a boy was murdered by bandits on the carriage in front of him.

The ability to make so much journalistic detail compelling is impressive.

It’s a quality that Cary attributes to an earlier, abandoned calling: photojournalism. “When I was young I did a bunch of things” he tells us, “photojournalism was something I really considered. …. In a way, Sin Nombre is more like photojournalism than documentary, though a lot of people are saying it’s like documentary. You could say, well what’s the difference? But in photojournalism you capture an emotion or story in one image rather than in documentary where you set out to cover a whole area.”

And why did Cary as a young film-school graduate in NYU get drawn into the story of Latin American migrants?

“I wanted to know why people do this. What would make someone risk so much to come to a place where they’re treated as second-class citizens? What drives you to risk your life like that? Especially for the women.”

Cary felt that the crossing-the-border story had been done before, but he wanted to concentrate on the dangers that migrants face even before getting there, often travelling for weeks on the roofs of freight trains, easy prey for local gangs.

Sin Nombre is accurate down to the central American slang of the script: “the imprisoned gang members were excellent copy-editors…” Cary says – in the two years he spent talking to them, they’d look over and correct the script for him. “It’s a pretty accurate record of early 2000s central American street talk”.

And it’s not just research that makes it authentic, Cary also plucked his actors from the milieu his film is set in, running open-casting sessions in Mexico and Honduras. That’s how he found main character Edgar Flores as Casper – a Honduran Robert Pattinson with more steel and facial tattoos. Cary explained that though he auditioned a lot of middle class kids in Mexico City, he felt none were tough enough to play the streetboy and killer that Casper needs to be.

It may seem ironic that Cary’s next project is a musical. “Yeah” he agrees. Slipping from a socially conscious docu-thriller like Sin Nombre to a musical is an unusual step. And the inspiration comes not from newspapers, but from fairytales:

“I had been reading a lot of Grimm’s fairytales…” he says “the film will be like a non-Disney version of fairytale love. The Grimms’ stories are not as dark as I thought, although violent, they usually end up working out, you know, the king’s beautiful daughter gets happily married. My story is about what we sacrifice for love, and the times when what we sacrifice isn’t wanted, or maybe it’s just that the timing’s wrong. It’s nothing cynical, it’s just that sometimes things don’t work out.”

Gulp. I feel upset by this already. Certainly Sin Nombre was high emotional-impact, and as they say about musicals – “when the emotion is too strong for words, you sing.”

Still, it is a jump for the former aspirant photojournalist: “I don’t even like musicals. I don’t want it to be campy musical” he told a slightly-baffled audience in Dalston. But in both, he explained to us “there’s a discussion of family and of love.”

And Cary comes up with another reason for his desire to switch genres:

“I think my drive in making this one comes from my love of music. I’ve always wished I was better at music and this gives me an excuse to learn…I like to learn something with each film, in the sense that I can learn more about music and musicology, maybe even play an instrument by the end of it. I don’t know..” little cheeky pause “maybe that’s unrealistic…”

Well if he can co-ordinate a feature film in a foreign country with open-casted actors, violent fight scenes and a train and then make a gripping screen hit out of a downbeat global problem, I’m sure he can learn an instrument. And I bet the musical fairytale of thwarted love will be fascinating.

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