The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro)

Mexico (2013) Dir. Diego Quemada-Díez

It is amazing how many subjects for films, music or other forms of artistic expression seem to have a lifespan beyond the period in which they were made in terms of their congruence and relevance to modern times. With the current migration/refugee issue absorbing Europe, this award winning tale, based on true accounts, of Central Americans seeking a better life across the border is deeply resonant.  

The intrepid wanderers in search of the titular golden dream are three teens from Guatemala, Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martínez) and Samuel (Carlos Chajon). They initially make it into Southern Mexico via boat, on board which they meet a lone tzotil native immigrant Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) who speaks no Spanish but is befriended by Sara, much to Juan’s chagrin.

Their stint in Mexico is cut short when they are arrested by Mexican immigration police and deported back to Guatemala where Samuel decides to stay. The other three continue their journey taking whatever opportunities they can but the hostility from Juan towards Chauk and the various hardships they encounter push them a step away from realising their dream.

Documentary filmmaker Diego Quemada-Díez’s feature debut is a quiet, poignant work that flies in the face of the usual story of hopeful transients by depicting the gritty reality of life for an illegal immigrant. It may sound like unpleasant viewing but for every positive encounter the trio have, an equally unpleasant one is waiting just around the corner for them.

By making his protagonists teenagers and not savvy adults, Quemada-Díez is sending out a warning to the disenfranchised youth and to the adults who do nothing to cultivate their life skills to secure them a more positive future. It also exposes the real nasty, exploitative side of the human race in the form of the various criminal groups laying in wait to pounce on the unsuspecting travellers.

While this makes our junior travellers sound like they are walking into this with their eyes shut, this is not completely true. At the start of the film Sara cuts her hair short and bandages her chest to disguise herself as a boy (although Chauk didn’t seem fooled), while Juan had some kind of plan for them to follow. Where their parents are is never explained, leaving us to assume if the kids are orphans or simply idealistic runaways sick of poverty.

Upon arriving in Chiapas, South Mexico, the trio earn some money by busking via dancing sharing their wealth with Chauk (despite Juan’s objections) so they at least know how to live by their wits. After parting with Samuel the new reluctant trio of Juan, Sara and Chauk begins their trek north again, this time staying close with the many other immigrants they encounter hitching illicit rides on the roof of many a train.

A regular occurrence for the trio is running from border police and malevolent gangs which yield different results each time. At first they are saved by a local man who gives them a job on a sugar cane plantation but the next encounter is less fruitful when a group of drug traffickers stop all immigrants, stealing their wares and taking the women – including Sara, leaving Juan and Chauk for dead.

From here the fate of the unlikely travelling partners falls into the category of the “left hand giveth, the right hand taketh away”, each situation revealing the despicable side of mankind as they fall foul to tricksters and dangerous criminal gangs. As part of the film’s narrative this may appear like a contrivance to heighten the tragedy and malice of the teens’ plight but we should be under no illusion that this instances existence for real.

Beneath a scorching sun or a brisk night sky there is a slight air of romanticism to be found in the freedom of the journey, and Quemada-Díez uses some apt and evocative indigenous music to accompany the travelling scenes. Conversely the hardships and discomfort of making their way by foot in searing temperatures across rocky pathways are shared with unapologetic lack of sympathy, the itchiness of the prickly heat a palpable sensation.

Amidst the horrors that make up the ebb and flow of the travellers’ luck is the less acknowledged facet of the motives for wanting to head to the US. We know the impoverished life in Guatemala drove Juan, Sara and Samuel onto the road but what about Chauk? Being unable to speak Spanish he is unable to communicate with other people, makes him something of an open book. Chauk is demonstrably capable of looking after himself and adapting to his surroundings, but his willingness to follow the others suggests he may not have the same reason for leaving home.

Thankfully we are let in on this unintentional secret in the wistful denouement but don’t mistake this for a happy ending – Quemada-Díez wants us to understand and appreciate what we have in our comfortable lives and put even the simplest of things we take for granted into perspective. It may not be obvious at first, perhaps even too oblique for a non-inquisitive mind but it is a sobering climax to ponder.

Quemada-Díez has created demanding roles for the three young non-professional leads and none of them backs down from the challenge. Their raw acting skills suit the realistic, near documentary style of the film and the youthful impetuosity that drives their characters. As the focus of the film and with the burden of the language barrier, Brandon López and Rodolfo Domínguez acquit themselves exceptionally well with Karen Martínez offering similarly impressive support.

The Golden Dream is a film which screams its message loud and clear yet keeps its intentions ambiguous, leaving us to determine why it says what it says. The stark realism of the presentation neatly clouds this intention to make us sit up and take notice of what is happening right in front of us today.


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