Directed by Diego Quemada-Diez, who has worked on three Ken Loach films, The Golden Dream (La Juala de Oro) follows the journey of four children who illegally cross the Mexico-United States border.
The film starts in a Guatemalan slum. Sara cuts her hair and tapes down her breasts to mask her sex. With a baseball cap on, she looks like a boy. She is ready to be smuggled to Los Angeles.
We know very little about Sara’s character – or, in fact, the characters of any of the other children in the film. She is on her own. Little is said, people are hopeless, sullen, and conditions are bleak. The railway, in contrast, is evocative of opportunity and, like the bicycle, can transform societies and economies. Understandably, the children see locomotion as the only hope. Many of them wish to escape this solitary, poor, nasty, brutish existence.
This is an anti-epic, anti-sentimental film, and in the end the journey may well be mightier than the children. What they face deviates from our familiar assumptions about poverty. The fables we tell ourselves about being poor no longer apply and are frankly out of date.
The church aids the poor, but this has no effect on our characters. As the children flee the slums, they encounter the beauty of the forest, but this too is merely a pleasing interlude. Eventually Sara is one of four, and together they join a stream of humanity heading north, in manifest destiny.
This is a world without the hopes of Horatio Alger – there are no ‘rags to riches,’ only rags. The children, like Lemuel Pitkin, have minimal character: they are there to be assaulted and molested by power. The police steal their shoes, a gang robs them, one is abducted and never seen again, and another is targeted by a sniper. It is a journey through the heart of darkness, yet, between them there is kinship.
The film is made in the spirit of newsreel reportage. It is neo-realist in style. It is not like Salles’ Central Station, or Fellini’s La Strada – where storytelling is elevated with the art of film. Instead, this is storytelling in the style of social realism. Devices of iconic cinema are used, very subtly. There is at times a danger that the film is going to turn into a series of neo-realist sketches of suffering – one after the other. We are rescued, however, by the red paint on Sara’s eyes, which helps her; and again, with the light relief of stealing a chicken. There is also the jouissance of adolescent sexuality and voyeurism from one of the boys.
Sadly, the director seems to have missed an opportunity to make an impression with direction, but, luckily, there are a couple of twists in the narrative which breaks from the monotony. The actors are non-professional, again in the tradition of neo-realist cinema. Rosselini used non-professional actors and shot in the style of the newsreel; Da Sica and Loach added drama.
What these films have in common is the sense of realism that comes from the lived experience of the participants– a hint of what Raymond Williams called ‘a structure of feeling’. In the films of Salles and Fellini, we are taken on a flight that is indistinguishable from dream. This happens twice in The Golden Dream, but very briefly. The film, nonetheless, remains largely influenced by Rosselini, Da Sica and Loach.
A good deal of the shooting is hand-held. Filmed on Super 16mm, detail in this format is terrific to look at when the subject is in close proximity to the lens. The lack of silver halide crystals, however, meant that landscapes didn’t hold detail on screen. The filmmaker is nonetheless forgiven since film is bound by political economy: the more expensive the gear, the more likely this will become a producers’ film. This is why 16mm is associated with freedom in cinema: unless likes of Dino De Laurentis are on your side.
When their journey ends, the children do not find utopia. Freedman’s observation that the world is flat can be turned on its head: if you are poor, then you are poor everywhere – even in the City of Angels. This is radically different from the way US Americans viewed the world in the 20th century. The American Century has come to an end. Here, Polanyi’s idea that the only way a liberal utopian vision could be sustained is by ‘force, violence and authoritarianism,’ becomes alive. For this reason, this is a story that must be told and retold. There is no greater legitimacy than the desire of a child to travel.
The Golden Dream (La Juala de Oro) is out in UK cinemas on 27 June, 2014.