The Golden Dream is a stunning first feature by Diego Quemada-Diez, who has previously worked camera for, among others, Alejandro Inarritu, Oliver Stone, and, most influentially, for Ken Loach. The Golden Dream has recently become the most awarded Mexican film in history, scooping up awards from Thessaloniki to Tallinn, including Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Juan (Brandon Lopez), Sara (Karen Martinez), and Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez) are three Guatemalans, barely burgeoning on adulthood, who leave the poverty of their slum and head for a treacherous dream, a life—a fantasy better life—in the United States. First as illegal immigrants in Mexico, they must make their way west and then up, to become illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, joining a river of migration through an incredibly hostile environment. Besides robbery (if it’s not bandits, it’s the police who rob them), hunger, and killing fields, they have to face their own prejudices which threaten to cleave them. It is visually dazzling, with performances by the non-professional leads who capture the subtle grandeur and spirit of people with nothing left to lose. It is also lacking any proselytizing or sentimentality. ‘No melodramatics,’ Quemada-Diez said when I mentioned this. ‘No. Not at all,’ I said.
Quemada-Diez: It’s this idea that life goes on. You just deal with it. You just go on. Especially these characters, they want to be adults. I didn’t want to have characters that were victims, I wanted to have very strong, vital characters, full of energy, who are looking to realize their dreams. So it was important that they wouldn’t be very sentimental.
They are very focused on their dreams, and determined. But what were their dreams? They start out in poverty, yes, but also part of a community, and in communion with the earth and their surroundings. They’re connected to the land, and people are working together (when they’re not being robbed or killed, of course). But when their dream is realised, it’s hellish. I don’t think there’s an exterior shot in the United States scenes; it’s all in this lonely, isolated, ghoulish factory.
Quemada-Diez: Yes, the loneliness. It’s the loneliness that a lot of migrants talk about when they get to the United States, this feeling that you’re in a culture that is not welcoming you and uses you to do the labor that nobody else wants to do, as the meatpacking represents. I wanted to communicate this feeling that I got from a lot of migrants, who I interviewed in the United States, in different parts of Mexico, in Guatemala. I also wanted to communicate that not only was the United States like a trap, for a lot of them, but that there was a very high price to pay by taking this journey. And also, of course, a commentary on slavery; this situation is very close to slavery. People are being used in a way. Also, in our society, you are as much as you have. It seems like sometimes this consumerist society makes us objects. I wanted to question this materialistic society and focus more on human values, on brotherhood, on this spirituality that comes from humanism. Also, to show that beyond races, beyond nationality, beyond languages, we all have a dream of having a better life and we all share the experience of being human beings.
Although the United States has given me a lot of things, there are no stories I wanted to tell here in Hollywood. I’d much rather tell stories in Mexico.
My dream was that I could dissolve the borders while we watch the movie and we could feel united. What the dream was, specifically of these children, I just wanted to show a character who had a material dream [Juan], and another who had a more poetic dream like seeing the snow [Chauk, who is Tzotzil], and through this contrast of two ways of looking at the world, that you could learn that instead of us always wanting to change the indigenous people, this time, we could learn from them and that we could open ourselves to a different way of looking at life. As Juan’s materialistic dream, the American dream, falls apart through the journey, the connections that he has with other human beings helps him become a better human being by the end of the story. He becomes able to feel. But most importantly, he realizes that happiness is not in the destination. Being in the United States or being in London or on a beach…the idea was to communicate that when we look for happiness outside of us we’re never going to find it. Life is really about the path, the human encounters we have—that’s what makes life worth living, and that’s where the learning and the growth comes from. And that’s what my personal experience has been about life. I’ve looked for happiness outside of me, or I’ve looked for happiness somewhere, you know, like in the United States for example, and I’ve realised I had to change my life on the inside first instead of trying to change the outside. So that’s what happens to Juan at the end of the movie, he starts another journey, a more inner journey. He becomes more conscious, he becomes more aware of his connection with other human beings, yes, he’s alone, but at the same time he’s not.
The original title, in Spanish, isn’t The Golden Dream…
Quemada-Diez: No, the Spanish title is, which means the ‘The Cage of Gold.’ The problem is that in English it doesn’t mean anything, because in Spanish La Jaula De Oro is a song, a famous migrant song, that refers to the fact that you go there for the gold—to make money, to make a living—and once you’re inside, you’re inside a cage. You’re like in a prison, just like so many migrants are in prison right now in the United States, and the hypocrisy around this issue—two million that Obama has deported, there are over half a million in prisons, this whole thing with children. There’s a lot of really terrible things that are happening and the focus is, primarily, in the militarization of the borders. I thought, ‘No, we have to see the root of the problem.’ This is an economic problem. People are migrating because they don’t have opportunities, because there’s huge violence in their countries, because there are no opportunities for young people, and that’s why they’re risking their lives to look for a better life.
The film explores the ubiquitousness of borders, because it’s not a mere crossing from Mexico into the US, they’re from Guatemala migrating to Mexico, where they’re also unwelcome and treated badly, and within the small group itself there’s the borders created through Juan’s racism.
Quemada-Diez: That was a semantic thing, that was very important, to talk about all the barriers that we’ve created; races, languages, nationalities are created, borders are created…
Also gender. Sara has to disguise herself as a boy.
Quemada-Diez: Even being a woman. There are all these barriers that we put up within ourselves, and I wanted to talk about those things that separate us, and at the same time, most importantly, talk about what unites us. But to articulate that idea in an intelligent way. In cinema you just can’t say your idea, you have to articulate it, you have to articulate it through conflict, through action, through a character’s dramatic arc…
Thank God you didn’t, because that’s what makes a film unbearable and preachy. And The Golden Dream was certainly not that. You let us come to our own realizations without being force-fed a ‘message.’
Quemada-Diez: Exactly. I learned that from Ken Loach; he articulates his idea but never says his idea.
The Golden Dream was visually exquisite. Why did you choose to shoot it on Super 16 instead of going digital?
Quemada-Diez: I wanted to shoot in Super 16 not only because my training has been on film—that’s sort of like the pencil, the brush I know how to handle—but also because it’s an homage to all the 16mm documentaries and the British school of filmmaking: Ken Loach, Barry Ackroyd, who was the DP that I learned from with Ken, Chris Menges, Brian Probyn, who was also a great documentary filmmaker from the BBC who taught Chris, and Chris taught Barry, and Barry taught me, so that’s one reason. But also it’s a very light camera. It’s great for documentaries, and I love the texture, and I love how fast you can shoot with Super 16—you put it on your shoulder, you frame it properly, and you focus on telling the story, the composition. And then the other part of the method that I learned with Ken is that the characters did not know the story. They had not read the script. We shot in chronological order and I would read the scene to them five minutes before shooting. I would say, ‘Okay this line that we wrote here. How would you say it?’ And they would tell me different ways that they would say it, and I would rewrite the dialogue. I would insert them in real situations; you create the context, which is what Ken called Indirect Direction, and then you throw them in there with real people around them, you know, real migrants, real people from the villages, real people in the factory, and you allow them to be themselves, you allow them to speak the way they speak. But obviously you’ve created the context, but you put them in as close to real situations as possible, and they have a real journey as they go along. You could never shoot the ending at the beginning of the movie. That would not have made any sense. This way you create a natural development of the story.
The cast was astonishing. It’s hard to get that authenticity in a performance, down to twitch of an eye. And they were all non-professional actors?
Quemada-Diez: The actors were very close to their characters, in a way. I mean, you cast people that you think are either very close to the character that you’ve written, or they’re going to bring a lot to it. I saw 6000 kids—3000 in Guatemala, 3000 in the mountains, for the indigenous characters in Mexico. And you look for people that are really interesting to observe, that you could watch for hours. I actually learned that from Benicio Del Toro, because when I worked on 21 Grams, I would see myself observing him because whatever he would do was interesting. A great actor is someone that you could observe for hours and hours and you would never get bored. They’re made for it; they’ve got his aura, or something. I wanted to talk about migration as an economic issue, so I looked for the actors in the slums of Central America and in the poor villages of the indigenous characters. And the cast was all artists, they were all creative people; Brandon Lopez is a hip hop artist, Karen Martinez is a theater performer, a street theater actress, but had not done any cinema, and Rodolfo Dominguez is a musician, plays the guitar, the harp, the trumpet, and the marimba. Also, for the indigenous character, I wanted someone who does not speak any Spanish at all.
Quemada-Diez: Nothing. Now he speaks a little bit, but back then he didn’t speak any of it. People were like, ‘You’re crazy. How you going to direct him?’ And I was, ‘I don’t know. I want that.’ So you focus a lot on the casting and then you do a workshop. I said, ‘We’re taking you to acting school for a month and a half, an intense acting school, and there we’re going to train you, discipline, commitment.’
There is no self-consciousness in their performances, no holding back, no discomfort with having a lens in their face.
Quemada-Diez: You have a camera all the time in the workshop, and have them lock eyes with the others, and move around. We did a lot of these exercises and eventually the camera disappears. They don’t even care, they forget that it’s there. So when they get all these awards in acting, they’re like, ‘Well, I didn’t act. I was just myself.’ And yes, they were themselves but they were bigger than themselves. For example in the workshop, just to give an idea, one day we were doing some games and Rodolpho broke a vase, a very expensive ceramic vase, and he got very upset and he disappeared. I looked for him and couldn’t find him, and then I found him at the top of a tree. So I realized, ‘Oh, this is the way he handles his negative emotions,’ so I thought when Chauk gets angry with Sara, I’ll put him up in a tree. So you’re always open to observe them and to learn from them, and then you incorporate that into the script.
Who played the bandits, the criminals, the gang?
Quemada-Diez: Well, the fat guy, he was the location manager. And then some of the others were actors, theatre actors. My original idea was to find the actors in the villages and bring them over to the workshop as well, but there was no money for that, so that was one of the things I had to give up. And a lot of them were just migrants. They get hired a lot to work for organized crime. Many times they take them and put a gun to their head and say, ‘Either you work for us or we shoot you.’ They were so amazing, they actually told me sometimes what we needed to do, because they knew, they had been in those situations. So they said, ‘Okay, normally we’ve got two migrants that go around with backpacks and they put the telephones and the money in there, the jewelry, and then at the end, we ask them for the bag and we kill them.’
Did real bandits ever try to bother you?
Quemada-Diez: No, no, it was all good. They never bothered us. That’s the good thing about also having done a lot of research, you know the dangerous places, and when you go to the dangerous places you go to the leaders and you explain what you’re doing so they don’t bother you. And then of course the government—the municipal government, the state government—they all knew what we were doing so the authorities also protected us. But the gangsters normally don’t get involved with any media, like journalists or film makers; they normally don’t bother them because it’s not in their best interest, of course.
Why did you choose to make this as your first film? You’ve had an incredible journey, from Spain, to the AFI, an illustrious career in Hollywood as a cameraman and DP. What drove you to this movie that you couldn’t find in Hollywood?
Quemada-Diez: Yes, I migrated myself, only the opposite way! 19 years ago I went to the United States from Spain, and I was looking for a better life. I was also looking to become a film director, really, I wanted to learn the craft from the best. In Spain, I was very lucky to work on Land and Freedom [Ken Loach, 1995] and other films before I left, and my idea was always to tell stories. But I felt that I had to get ready. I thought I would go into the camera department because I felt that cinema is where we tell stories though images, and we write with images. At the beginning, I really had a hard time in the United States because I didn’t have papers. I really struggled; I worked in very low budget films in Los Angeles, and eventually I was able to get in the union and get papers, and I started working on bigger and bigger films. That allowed me to save money, to say, ‘Okay, I didn’t get into the film business just to become a camera operator, I got into films to tell stories.’ I took those savings and applied to the American Film Institute. And there, for three years, I just focused on learning the craft, from the screenwriting point of view, the cinematography point of view, the director point of view; Terrence Malick, David Lynch all these great directors that went to AFI, from classical screenwriting to more experimental modern filmmaking. I made my first short film in 2001, well it was actually my second, but it’s the first one that can be watched because the other ones are so bad. Working for other people also allowed me to finance those short films, and allowed me to observe other methods and see what makes sense to me. So, from the film point of view, I worked with people that were very famous filmmakers but that focused a lot on the form, on the trick, and my own process was that you have to focus on the content: what is it that you want to say, what is the point of view that you have on things, why do you want to tell the story…the acting, the characters, the narrative, that has to be the focus. And that threw me back to all the films that I worked on with Ken Loach. It was, like, ‘This guy had it down!’ He’s an amazing master—the simplicity of his storytelling, the visual simplicity. He doesn’t need all these tricks. Also, on a personal level, I felt totally empty living in the United States. Even though I learned a lot from the craft, I felt it was a very materialistic society; I was working all the time, and I felt very few human connections, true human connections, and I travelled a lot to Mexico and found it absolutely fascinating. I fell in love with Mexico. And though the United States has given me a lot of things, I felt there are no stories I wanted to tell here in Hollywood, you know? I’d much rather tell stories in Mexico. And I found these amazing stories, like in 2002 I found this story. I was living in the railroad tracks in Mazatlan in Sinaloa, doing a documentary there, and I encountered the migrants, and I thought, ‘I got to tell their story. I got to do an epic poem about them.’ They’re heroes; they’re risking their lives to help their loved ones, their bravery is incredible, and we can learn so much from them. So I decided to move to Mexico almost ten years ago, and I became a nationalized Mexican. So there’s a lot of my own journey, my own learning, in the film, and that’s what I wanted to share. So it’s very personal.
So you’ve gone from Hollywood to Mexico. What is the state of the film industry in Mexico?
Quemada-Diez: We live in an era, it seems, of junk food. At least in Mexico. We’re dominated by these huge Hollywood productions that are really empty inside. Spiderman, X Men, Godzilla, it’s junk food for the spirit and for the mind. It’s anesthetic, it makes you fall asleep, your consciousness becomes numb. We’re trying to make cinema that encourages thinking, encourages collective self-reflection about contemporary issues. We are storytellers so we focus on telling stories; we have a point of view of things. This whole thing about neutrality? I find it absurd. You have a point of view, you just have to be subtle and articulate your idea in an intelligent way.
I think it’s a very good moment in Mexican cinema. I’m very happy to be a part of it.
Art is about communication, so it has to have a function, you don’t just do it because you want to become rich and famous. So there is a motivation behind making films that has to do with creating bridges between human beings, telling stories about human beings, telling stories of the people. John Ford talked about this in 1939 after he did Stagecoach. At that time, it was the biggest star film in history, with the biggest budget, and he said in the future people won’t make films like this. They will go to the communities, they will go to the villages, they will find out what stories people want to be told, what stories need to be told, and so the scripts will come from that. Once they have the script, the filmmakers will go back to those communities and the people will act in them. You know, he was right, at the same time, he was wrong. But there’s still this whole star system, all these films about escapism. But we want to make films that provoke transformation in the viewer, and that the viewer will go back to his reality with a sense of rebellion, stimulating his or her critical thinking. But the situation nowadays is very difficult, just like it’s very difficult for any independent producer. You know, a guy who has a small shop in the corner, and there’s Wal-Mart, or a guy who plants tomatoes, a local farmer, against these huge corporations. We’ve opened the border to transnationals and we’ve closed it to human beings. 95% of the exhibition in Mexico is U.S. films. But there is a great production of Mexican films because there is a tax incentive that supports national production; it has to generate employment in Mexico, it has to tell stories, it has to be shot in Mexico, it has to be done by Mexican producers. This last year, I think, we had 126 movies. It’s thanks to this law. And the quality of films is great: there are light comedies, there’s science fiction, there are the realistic films me and Amat Escalante do, so there’s a lot of variety. I think it’s a very good moment in Mexican cinema. I’m very happy to be a part of it.