Movie Review: Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre2009. Starring Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan. Directed by Cary Fukunaga.

The right-wing outrage over illegal immigration — like its outrage over nearly every issue — purposefully avoids consideration of the human lives at the heart of the debate. There is even a trend to refer to illegal immigrants as “illegals,” so as to remove any reference to the humanity of the desperate people involved. Ignoring the vulnerable souls behind a painful and difficult decision must help when you want to demonize and demagogue.

What Sin Nombre forces you to do, from its beginning, is to consider the circumstances of two very different people, forced to join the stream of humans escaping precarious economic and political circumstances. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a pretty and lonely Honduran meeting her father for the first time in years — he long ago crossed the border and has a family in New Jersey, and now wants to bring his brother and Sayra to his new home. She is persuaded to go, even though she no longer feels like part of him.

Meanwhile, Willy (Edgar Flores) is dealing with much more frightening circumstances in the Chiapas region of Mexico. A gang member who is experiencing a lack of commitment, he’s been ordered to induct a new member, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), but is busy sneaking off to spend time with his girlfriend, who he has been hiding. After an assault on his girlfriend, and forced by his gang leader to join in a robbery of Sayra and her family members, Willy strikes back, sealing his own fate. He decides to escape on the same train, with a network of violent gang members watching for him at every stop.

Life on the trains north is dangerous and dirty, and you can feel the despair everytime Sayra’s father takes out his worn map to indicate how far they still have to go. (Their goal of New Jersey is “off the map,” as he describes it.) They crawl north on the rails, rained on and preyed upon, and hiding from authorities. Willy joins Sayra’s small group of travelers, but realizes that he is putting her at risk at every stop.

Some of the land crossed in Sin Nombre is beautiful in the early morning light and the twilight — vast, barren plains and far-off mountains, but everywhere you look in the near distance there’s poverty and desperation. Nowhere seems like a good place to get off and begin again. Once committed on their journey, the travelers don’t dare pause or delay, or they doom any chance of reaching the border. When Sayra makes the decision to leave the train to join Willy, her grieving father can do nothing but move along.

I don’t know the answer to stemming illegal immigration. I realize that allowing everyone who wants access to a better life is tough to do when the gap expands between the privileged few and the multitudes of the poor. But I know that if I found myself in the same hellish world run by Willy’s gangs, I would do whatever necessary to become an American and change my life for the better. When you put yourself in the shoes of those trying to do the same, and you recognize the same basic desires behind those “illegal” faces — the nameless, to whom the film’s title refers — the issue becomes a lot more human.

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