Diego Quemada-Diez’s film, The Golden Dream, tells the story of three young Guatemalans attempting to cross the border to the United States.
One cannot watch Diego Quemada-Diez’s film, The Golden Dream, without thinking of Gregory Nava’s 1983 film, El Norte. Both feature impoverished Guatemalans making the journey through Mexico to Tijuana and eventually into Los Angeles; and both films feature indigenous Guatemalans in central roles. But where El Norte is populated with riveting three-dimensional characters, The Golden Dream is flat and formulaic.
Quemada-Diez’s film suffers from a desire for political simplicity: the baddies are rotten and the good guys are innocent victims. There is zero nuance in this world view, and it makes for boring and predictable art. Quemada-Diez worked with the British director Ken Loach as a camera assistant on his 1995 film Land and Freedom and also collaborated on Carla’s Song and Bread and Roses. In interviews he cites the British director as a major influence, and this has perhaps contributed to his overly simplistic approach to art as political statement.
Quemada-Diez shot the film in a Loachian style, using non-actors and available light, and filmed it in sequence, improvising many of the scenes. The central characters are Juan (Brandon López), a 16-year old Guatemalan, and Sara (Karen Martínez), a girl who chops off her hair and binds her chest in order to pass herself off as ‘Osvaldo’. They are joined on their journey by Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), an indigenous Tzotzil Guatemalan who speaks no Spanish. The dynamics between the three work well at first, especially in the sexual jealousy between Chauk and Juan who both fancy Sara. The improvisational and almost documentary approach to directing his actors however eventually reveals its limitations. Juan, Sara and Chauk simply don’t develop enough to carry an entire film. There is no insight into how this journey might be affecting them, and this doesn’t allow for the building of dramatic tension. The contempt Juan holds for the ‘Indian’ Chauk feels real, and is well played out. But I get the sense that Quemada-Diez doesn’t want to delve too deeply into his central characters because if he did he would find both good and bad, which would muddy the waters of his polemic — the implication being that victims of terrible circumstances are unfailingly good people.
The film looks beautiful, thanks to Maria Secco’s photography. The lush locations provide a powerful foil for the suffering experienced by the immigrants who are carried through stunning landscapes atop rusty, lurching trains (often at sunset or twilight when the rainforests and desertscapes are at their most photogenic). The many sunrises and sunsets become a trope throughout the film reminding the viewer that the movement of the sun across the sky is the one constant experienced by these teenagers — it’s their one certainty, the only thing they have to hold onto.
Every now and then, the director throws in some magic realism, in the form of Chauk’s recurring dream of snow tumbling and swirling through a black sky. This dream is accompanied by plinky plonky piano music alerting us to the fact that this is a Poetic Moment. The music throughout this film is a problem. Jacobo Lieberman and Leo Heiblum have created a score that alternates between this tinkling piano and soaring strings. It is a shame Quemada-Diez felt he had to rely on music to tell us what to feel rather than letting the action and the faces of his actors do the job. Alerting the audience to moments of emotion through music sits uncomfortably with the more documentary approach the director uses with his actors.
The journey made by the teenagers is harrowing, but the baddies they meet along the way come over as cartoon villains. We get sexual predators; pirates who empty the migrants’ pockets of what few possessions they have; Mexican police who steal their shoes; hostage takers who demand the phone numbers of migrants’ families in the US in order to demand money in return for their release; and of course, this being Latin America, we get drug smugglers. It is a paint-by-numbers approach to showing us one of each type of villain. I would have liked to perhaps get to know a few of these bandits, some of whom might be as desperate — and dare I say it as human — as the people they are fleecing.
At one point Juan, Sara and Chauk are given work on a sugar cane farm and after a few long days of hard labour they share an evening of tequila and abandon with their fellow workers. The night descends into drunkenness. Juan and Sara dance to a song that seems to have meaning for them and they wander off together to spend the night. I felt the first connection to these three teenagers and I wanted more scenes showing them with their guards down. Sara becomes a flirty young woman and Juan becomes a sweaty inebriated teenage boy and Chauk becomes the humiliated gooseberry. I realised how up until this scene, I had felt very little for them despite their incredible hardships. Perhaps because they are portrayed as cyphers or symbols of oppression rather than real flesh-and-blood people.
There is no plot to speak of as the story basically revolves around whether our protagonists will make it across the frontera. Juan makes it, and the scenes of him in an American meat factory are powerful. Once on US soil, his suffering happens in isolation: gone is the comradeship of the journey north. It is an unsettling scene as we watch him picking up scraps of offal and debris from the factory floor, and plopping them into a bucket. He looks resigned to his fate and in this look lies the central question of this film: was it all worth it? But Quemada-Diez doesn’t privilege this question, or explore it.
I wish the film had ended on this note or had taken this idea further, as Nava does in El Norte. Instead Quemada-Diez cuts to snow falling, reminiscent of Chauk’s snow dreams. Why is Juan suddenly sharing the dream of the ‘Indian’ he once disliked but came to love? Is this an attempt to show every migrant’s struggle as basically one united struggle? If so, this only serves to diminish the specificity of each and every migrant’s story with its attendant joy and pain. This scene somewhat undermines the previous one which leaves us feeling that life in America holds some promise, but the reality also delivers despair and degradation. What is a dream of falling snow next to the reality of a life spent picking up bloody scraps in a meat factory?
I have stood on that very border and looked through the chain link fence from El Paso, Texas, towards Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of Mexico, and felt the forces of history and the injustices that often accompany them, and wondered at the surreal discrepancy between the paved, first-world streets of America and the dusty, cardboard and corrugated metal houses of Mexico a few hundred feet away. It is a strange and intriguing place full of violence, hope and sadness. But this film doesn’t come close to conveying the true nature of this border and the complex lure it holds over many of those who live south of it. As an enterprise The Golden Dream is to be applauded, but as a fully-rounded film, it falls short.