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Feb 13, 2009

After winning best director at Sundance for his new film, Sin Nombre, Cary Fukunaga has found himself on the fast track to success.

By Rachel Fernandes

The Road Less Traveled
Director Cary Fukunaga visited prisons and rode freight trains through
the wilds of southern Mexico to prepare for his award-winning first
feature, Sin Nombre.
“I’m not a gang banger and I’ve never been an immigrant,” states Cary
Fukunaga, a half-Japanese, half-Swedish California native and Student
Academy Award-winning filmmaker.
His debut feature film, Sin Nombre,
is an intensely visceral account of the concurrent journeys of two
desperate young people—a Mexican thug surviving the mean streets of
Tapachula in Chiapas, and an innocent Honduran girl riding atop a
freight train across treacherous territory in hope of reaching a better
life in the U.S.
But while the heightened realism of the film—an achievement that earned
Fukunaga the award for best dramatic director at this year’s Sundance
Film Festival—may not be derived solely from his own experiences
growing up, the filmmaker’s devout commitment to research, observation
and empathetic storytelling yields a powerful piece of cinema.
“I loved doing the research for the film—traveling with immigrants and
going to prisons, meeting gang members and hearing their stories,”
Fukunaga recalls.
Leading up to the film’s production, Fukunaga made six separate trips
to southern Mexico, each time gathering more fuel for the fire and
letting no detail go unnoticed. He went so far as to ride on one of the
freight trains, despite the obvious dangers.
“It was essential to the realism of the story that I live in the world
and get as much information as possible,” he notes. “I was going to
have to recreate these scenes.”
The title of the film, Sin Nombre,
which means “without name,” is inspired by the many crosses erected at
the Mexico-U.S. border in memory of the nameless individuals who died
in the act of immigrating.
But it also refers to street life—to the fact that new gang members are stripped of their given names after their initiation.
The film opens with the violent induction of a 12 year old into the
Mara Salvatrucha (otherwise known as MS-13) gang. After being beaten
mercilessly, the new member still manages to smile, earning him the
name “Smiley” from the brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Willy, whose gang name is Caspar, is desperate to keep his
love for a beautiful girl a secret from the gang. The surprising and
brutal events that follow set him on an unexpected course, helping a
young Honduran girl cross the Mexican border into the U.S.
It’s a classic tale of tragedy and redemption, told with a sophistication that’s rare for such a young writer and director.
With a fresh vision and precise attention to detail, Fukunaga manages
to bring together a compelling mixture of strong performances and
vibrant images.
And with Sin Nombre
set for release on March 20 and a new two-script deal with Focus
Features and Universal, it appears Fukanaga’s journey has just begun.

A Tragedy in Victoria
Director Cary Fukunaga’s short film, Victoria Para Chino, caused a buzz on the festival circuit and set the stage for his latest success.
In 2005, Cary Fukunaga was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film after his short, Victoria Para Chino, won a number of prizes on the international film festival circuit along with a Student Academy Award.
The film is based on the true story of an abandoned trailer full of
dead and dying illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America that
was discovered in Victoria, Texas, in May of 2003.
Made as a film school project, Fukunaga’s short was shot for only
$5,000 and drew acclaim for its intensely humane and unaffected
portrait of the events.
While researching the project, Fukunaga heard about other groups of
Central American immigrants making their way across Mexico toward the
U.S. by riding on the tops of freight trains. These stories inspired
him to write the script for what would become his first feature, Sin Nombre.

The Mother of Invention
Now that his first feature film, Sin Nombre,
has become one of this year’s breakout hits at the Sundance Film
Festival, director Cary Fukunaga can add the Sundance Institute to the
list of those he’d like to thank for his success.
Fukunaga took full advantage of the Institute’s Feature Film Program, a
group of intensive workshops that give aspiring filmmakers insight into
the art of making movies.
This exclusive program—the screenwriting lab accepts only 12 applicants
for each annual session—has played a key role in the creation of a long
list of successful independent films and counts P.T. Anderson and
Quentin Tarantino among its distinguished participants.

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