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In search of the American Dream

The Spanish director's 10 year in the making docudrama follows three Latin American migrant teenagers on a journey to LA

A Spaniard who made his reputation working as a cameraman for A-list American filmmakers like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, Diego Quemada-Díez may not immediately seem the obvious candidate to write and direct The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), an epic docudrama about young Latin American migrants – three Guatemalans and one Mexican Tzotzil Indian – on the long and dangerous journey to the US. But that’s a notion he quickly disavows. “I migrated myself from Spain 19 years ago,” he points out. “I had to buy fake papers to work and it was tough to be in LA.”

Quemada-Díez stuck it out and studied cinematography at the American Film Institute, where his award-winning graduation film led to high-profile gigs including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, Tony Scott’s Man on Fire and Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener. But it’s his earlier encounters working for our own Ken Loach – “still the most incredible experience of my life” – on his 90s films Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song that really shines through in his stunning debut feature. 

Over 10 years in the making, Quemada-Díez’s obsessively researched “collective testimony” has been sweeping up awards since its Cannes debut – where it won the "A Certain Talent" prize – and no wonder. Detailing with brutal honesty and disarming compassion the trials of thousands of migrants seeking their own promised land, it’s a film whose powerful urgency is matched only by its willingness to speak out for those who find themselves without a voice. Or a home.

When did you realise you wanted to direct this film?

Diego Quemanda-Díez: 2003 was the spark of the idea. I was working as a cameraman in the US industry but I was more drawn to Mexico to make my own films. I became friends with a taxi driver and he invited me to live with his family. The house was by the railway tracks along which the migrants travelled and that’s how the whole thing started.

Is there an upside to the process taking so long?

Diego Quemanda-Díez: The project matured. There was time to research 4000 km territory of the journey, I researched in Guatemala, went to meat-packing factories and prisons in the US. In the beginning I wanted to make a documentary, like Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, but I couldn’t get the money. So I started working on the script and thought, 'OK, I’ll take the best of documentary and the best of fiction.'

The best preparation can still flounder if the actors aren’t up to the job. How did you find such amazing non-professional kids? 

Diego Quemanda-Díez: We spent nine months casting in the poorest slums of Guatemala City, where people are killed everyday. Our lead actor, since he was cast, 5 of his friends had been shot dead. We asked each kid: Do you want to go to the US? And: Can you dance? to see their connection with their body. We wanted something more intuitive, not intellectual. Once I cast them, we did workshops, lots of improvisation and games. The camera becomes invisible and – boom – you go straight into the shoot. You just become a witness to the transformation, make it feel that it’s something real – suddenly the cops arrive or the soldiers appear and [they] run. We also shot chronologically and only let them discover the story as we shot.

“This isn't coming from a Utopian place. It's pragmatic – you know, we do share the planet. What happens over there ends up happening to us. We're all on the same train, really” – Diego Quemanda-Díez 

So how did they react to learning their often-harrowing fates? 

Diego Quemanda-Díez: When one of the characters dies, he only found out five minutes before. His first reaction was, “Why me? Why not the other guy?” I told him, “Sorry, it’s what needs to happen. You’re the soul of the film.”

Did Ken Loach’s style inspire your way of working?

Diego Quemanda-Díez: Absolutely. Ken’s style is simplicity of the form; focus on the content, express what you want in an articulate, intelligent way.

How about other directors you’ve worked with?

Diego Quemanda-Díez: Spike Lee is very good with actors and very fast. With Tony Scott and Oliver Stone I learned maybe not to use so many cameras. Fourteen cameras on Any Given Sunday, that’s fucking crazy! Iñárritu’s a very good director but 21 Grams’s script was 137 pages. Most of the greatest stuff we shot didn’t even end up in the movie! So I shot a 57-page script.

What’s been the reaction in the US?

Diego Quemanda-Díez: It’s been in festivals and they gave us a couple of awards, but audiences are in total shock. “Is there really that (border) wall? Aren’t they all happy when they get here?” The most beautiful thing happened in LA – four blonde Californian girls, 14-15 years old, saw the movie, came up crying and hugged me, saying, “Thank you for making me feel for these people who I always looked down upon.” Well, that’s part of the goal of the movie, to try and build bridges.

On a practical level, where do we go from here? 

Diego Quemanda-Díez: Migration is an economic issue. And a post-colonial issue, that same Cowboys and Indians fight. The US has financed all the wars in Central America, installed puppet governments that benefit their own interests and established free trade agreements that have destroyed national production. Militarisation of the borders isn’t the solution. Legalisation of migrants in the US would help, maybe temporary visas. A lot of people don’t want to stay in the US. There are towns in Mexico that have no men because they all went north and once you’re there you can’t get back.

It’s “la jaula de oro” – “ the golden cage”…

Diego Quemanda-Díez: This isn’t coming from a Utopian place. It’s pragmatic – you know, we do share the planet. What happens over there ends up happening to us. We’re all on the same train, really.

The Golden Dream is in cinemas now