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Que viva México

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Eniac Martinez/Focus Features

Making a first feature film is guaranteed to be an enormous challenge, but there are ways to alleviate the burden. One such method is to bring aboard creative talent with whom you’ve had a history, be it in short films, film school or some other outlet. Another is to keep the film small and personal, writing and directing what you know without having to worry about big budgets and the attendant complications.

Instead of making things easier on himself, Cary Joji Fukunaga made them harder. For his debut, the New York University MFA student and native of Oakland, Calif. traveled to Honduras and Mexico, learned a foreign language and directed non-professional actors in a complicated world with which he hadn’t the slightest personal familiarity, with a crew bereft of prior creative partners.

That he turned said circumstances into “Sin Nombre” – an award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a work of unquestionable skill and maturity – is nothing short of an unfathomable achievement. The film, which follows immigrants fleeing Mexico atop a freight train speeding towards the U.S. border, emerged directly from Mr. Fukunaga’s fascination with that image.

“I learned about Central American immigration, the trains, how difficult it is to cross Mexico, migrants running to the freight trains, bandits and gangs,” Mr. Fukunaga said. “Just the immediate imagery of that story struck a chord with me, and I felt that would make a fascinating feature film that, as American audiences especially, we’re not used to seeing.”

From there, he did some extensive research, traveling with real immigrants and speaking extensively with real gang members before writing the screenplay and casting mostly non-professional actors to help promulgate the naturalist sensibility he had in mind for the film.

“In Mexico, there’s not really a studio of naturalistic acting. Everything’s heightened in a sort of telenovela-esque sort of way, and there’s a lot of having to break that down in the performances,” he said. “I much prefer the [natural] style of acting [of non-professionals]. That’s not to say American actors who are trained can’t do that, but in Mexico it’s hard to find.”

Given the general enthusiasm surrounding the film, from Focus Features CEO James Schamus’s early support of it to the positive critical response, there’s no question Mr. Fukunaga will be heard from again. Although he promises his next movie will have nothing to do with immigrants or gangs, and may even be in German, he won’t soon forget the deeper reasons he wanted to tell this story first.

“[I made this movie to] create empathy with people you would never normally create empathy with,” he said. “I think one of the few ways to do that is to share an emotion, so at least for me the goal was to find universal storytelling and universal desires.”

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