Born in Spain but currently living in Mexico, Diego Quemada-Díez initially worked as a camera assistant on three Ken Loach films (Land And Freedom, Bread And Roses and Carla’s Song) before later joining the crew on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. The Golden Dream is Quemada-Díez’s feature length debut, which he also wrote, and it tells the story of migrant teenagers who leave their poverty-stricken Guatemalan border town with the intention of illegally travelling through Mexico and into the United States. Two of them are boys – named Juan (Brandon López) and Samuel (Carlos Chajon) – while the third teenager, Sara (Karen Noemí Martínez Pineda), intends to pass as one while she is on the road: in the very first scene we see her prepare by cutting her hair short and taping down her breasts.
When they enter Mexico the kids are joined by a young Tzotzil boy named Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), who does not speak Spanish. Chauk manages to communicate with the trio nonetheless, and strikes up a friendship with Sara, though Quemada-Díez’s tale merely skirts around the edge of any flourishing romantic feelings. Initially Chauk’s presence is disruptive, as the livewire Juan in particular seems to feel threatened by the newcomer, but gradually the group becomes stronger and reliant on one another as they try to avoid a variety of dangers. Save for one group of workers based at a sugar plantation the adults in the film regularly take advantage of the teenagers and their journey grows ever more hazardous the nearer they get to Texas: Mexican police deport them but steal their boots, while a later run-in with a gang of merciless drug traffickers leads to a painfully sad parting of the ways. This, in fact, is one of the strongest segments in the film: one character disappears and the others press on with their journey regardless; within the timeline offered by the story the characters receive no further information about the missing person and there is no schmaltzy reunion. Similarly the viewer is not told anything. The fact that the child’s welfare and whereabouts remain a mystery – as they presumably would in real life – brings home the severity of what has happened, and the extent of peril that exists in such long journeys, succinctly.
It’s natural that optimism upon leaving the Guatemala / Mexico border soon turns to pessimism; in an early part of the film the kids pose in front of an idyllic-looking cardboard cut-out of an American cowboy, which contrasts with a later scene in which a disillusioned Juan watches a Mexican vaquero ride past piles of rubble and rubbish. The kids exhibit an inner strength, though, through their determination, resourcefulness and commendable loyalty, even when they are dealing with brutal thieves, con artists and corrupt facilitators. They travel largely by hopping trains, riding in boxcars or on the roof with dozens of fellow migrants, and much of the film takes place either by the side of train tracks or aboard the actual vehicles, with tunnels and vanishing points providing constant reminders of the land they have left behind and the unknown dangers that lay ahead. Coupled with María Secco’s gorgeous early evening photography I thought of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me – a film that also bases its journey around train tracks – on more than one occasion, despite the fact the two films are miles apart in tone, setting and subject matter.
The Golden Dream is skilfully acted by the four non-professionals in the lead roles, with López and Martínez Pineda standing out, while the story itself is an engrossing, moving tale. It is also quietly angry in the way in which it dismantles the notion of the United States as some kind of promised land, or the idea that a pot of gold lies at the end of a rainbow, dispensing with the kind of romantic, upbeat ending that is often tacked on to such films. Here a seemingly-large American company is seen to be taking advantage of one of the kids who makes it across (and many more Mexicans working for less than minimum wage to boot), with Quemada-Díez rightly pointing out that the exploitation and poor treatment of children does not suddenly begin or end at a border crossing; additionally there are other dangers, which turn out to be even more brutal and senseless than anything that happens to the teenagers in Mexico. Despite everything, however, there is a sense that poverty back home is so bad the journey is still worth undertaking.
Directed by: Diego Quemada-Díez.
Written by: Diego Quemada-Díez.
Starring: Brandon López, Karen Noemí Martínez Pineda, Rodolfo Domínguez, Carlos Chajon.
Cinematography: María Secco.
Editing: Paloma López.
Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman.
Running Time: 108 minutes.