Nothing busts canons quite like living in interesting times. In our ongoing Inflection Point series, we look back at the films that have taken on new relevance due to our ongoing cultural and political upheaval. Some beloved, some undiscovered, these titles deserve newfound consideration as film criticism evolves to meet the moment.
Sometime in the next calendar year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will likely choose to release “No Time to Die” in theaters. This film will mark both Daniel Craig’s final turn as the character of James Bond and the inevitable ascension of director Cary Fukunaga to the rank of A-list filmmaker. With a resume that includes the award-winning HBO series “True Detective” and perhaps the bleakest unproduced Stephen King adaptation of all time, Fukunaga has yet to translate his small-screen success to a major Hollywood production. Barring a shocking collapse in quality, though, “No Time to Die” promises to be the film that breaks him out.
But long before Fukunaga was Barbara Broccoli’s latest Bond muse, he had established himself as a writer-director with an appreciation for some of humanity’s most sobering stories. Nowhere is this better present than in “Sin Nombre,” Fukunaga’s debut feature about gang violence and the lucrative state of American border crossings in Latin America. In crafting a film about the challenges immigrants face, Fukunaga made a film that shone a light on a broken system at a time where the American Dream still seemed alive in the eyes of many.
“Sin Nombre” follows two young immigrants as they make their way across Central America to the Texas border. Willy (Edgar Flores) is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang and loyal to Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta), a ruthless crime lord training young boys to become hardened killers. Meanwhile, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a young Honduran who recently reunited with her deported father. The two make their separate ways up the railroad system that the Mara gang controls, but when their paths cross, Willy is forced to go on the run from forces on both sides of the border. It is only by working together that Willy and Sayra stand a chance at making it to America safely.
As someone who has pivoted easily between film and prestige television early in his career, Fukunaga has earned a reputation as an equally talented writer and director. Even in his first feature, Fukunaga demonstrates an ability to bring visual concepts to well-crafted narratives. After a few minutes spent establishing the backstory of each character, “Sin Nombre” uses the crowd of immigrants itself as a primary storytelling device. As the movie unfolds, the number of passengers on the railroad cars slowly dwindles. What begins with hundreds of people sitting atop railroad cars soon turns into dozens of men and women finding shelter between wagons. Soon, only a handful remain, and those few are ushered straight into the hands of the Mexican border patrol.
For Fukunaga, these kinds of attention-grabbing visuals only work in service of the text. Fukunaga has described the writing process of “Sin Nombre” as similar to that of a research paper. “We organized academic research, meeting professors in universities in Chiapas,” the filmmaker told Socialist Review in 2009. “They put us into contact with the head of the state security, who got us into the prisons. Then from the prisons we went down to the border and started meeting immigrants and other rights groups.” Read between the lines, and you can see Fukunaga’s reluctance to create something didactic or overly preachy. Still, it’s impossible to tell this story without inspiring an emotional response. The challenge is to blend message and medium in a way that demands the attention of audiences.
In “Sin Nombre,” Fukunaga walks a determined line between entertainment and education. The details of the gang initiations and gunfights are heightened for dramatic effect, but the smaller touches – the presence of poverty in the movie or the dehumanizing effect the journey has on Sayra – speak to the authentic elements Fukunaga has added to the script. It is impossible to watch “Sin Nombre” and feel anything other than sympathy for those who give up everything to make it to America. Anyone who repeats right-wing claims of lawless caravans of border crossers would do well to see how hard people like Willy must work to get within shouting distance of the Texas border.
None of this is new, of course. America’s inhumane treatment of immigrants over the past few years has also opened many eyes to a decade of regressive border policies. In 2017, for example, historian Aviva Chomsky published an article in The Nation that detailed the Obama administration’s escalation of deportation cases. The change, Chomsky explained, was the rampant criminalization of border crossing. “Obama became the deporter in chief not because he deported more people than previous administrations,” Chomsky wrote, “but because he criminalized more of those he deported.” This – in addition to political pressure on the Mexican government – entrenched immigration in the minds of many Americans a crime that itself warrants severe legal action.
This knowledge has a chilling effect on the ending of “Sin Nombre.” While the film earned some criticism on its release for exploiting gang violence and Central American poverty, the degradation of our immigration system only serves to highlight the film’s bleaker elements. Sayra’s father only reappears in her life because he is deported; as the film ends, her uncle – himself deported by the Mexican police – is now attempting to enter the United States for the second time. The film may end on Sayra’s cathartic phone call with her stepmother, but when offered in the context of her entire family, her victory feels impermanent. Forget the quality of life that Sayra faces in the United States. One wrong step and she’s cursed to a never-ending cycle of deportation and criminalization.
And that subtle nihilism is what makes “Sin Nombre” such an impactful film for new audiences. In a 2009 interview with the Center for American Progress, Fukunaga noted that, for all his emphasis on authentic details, he never considered shooting “Sin Nombre” as anything other than a narrative feature. “I love documentaries,” the filmmaker explained, “but I think that fictional films have a wider audience, and I think as a filmmaker you want as many people to see your films as possible.” With a film like “No Time to Die” to his name, Fukunaga has made himself the kind of director whose earliest work will be sought after. Somewhere amidst the urban landscapes and the shocking acts of violence, those seekers may just realize what people are risking to call America home.