The Golden Dream 2014 Dir: Diego Quemada-Díez
The title of The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro) comes from a 1983 Mexican song by Tigres del Norte about a Mexican immigrant’s regrets about the ‘golden cage’ of his residency in the USA. Diego Quemada-Díez’s film of the same name, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes last year, follows Sara, Juan and Samuel (first-time actors Karen Martínez, Brandon López and Carlos Chajon) three young Guetamalans who also hope to escape poverty in the United States. On their long journey they encounter countless others with the same goal, in particular a Tzotzil boy named Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez). They also confront violence, extortion, and the constant fear of arrest or death.
Yet I am reluctant to describe La jaula de oro as a ‘difficult’ watch. Firstly, I am wary of further discouraging people from seeing a film which may already be a hard sell. Immigration, subtitles, realism, and non-professional actors are hardly bywords for a summer blockbuster, but this is film is worthwhile and not only in a moral-high-ground sort of way. Secondly, given Jaula’s subject matter, it feels callous to describe the experience of watching a film as in any way taxing.
Quemada-Díez worked under Ken Loach on several of the British director’s films, and deftly adopts Loachian techniques such as shooting on location using a semi-improvisatory approach, to put the mundane realities of immigration into stark relief. Our young heroes are flanked on the various legs of their journey by hundreds of other migrants, reminding us that their story is a fraction of the bigger picture. Clinging onto the tops of trains or trudging through the Mexican countryside, these fellow travellers are played by real-life migrants hired on location.
Whilst he never veers from unflinching realism, there is a poetry not only in Quemada-Díez’s depiction of the landscape through which the teens journey and his patient pacing of the film, but also in the quiet beauty of the characters’ relationships. The ordinary and extraordinary acts of camaraderie, bickering, loyalty, and just waiting around are drawn together by sparse dialogue and stunning, subtle performances. The most touching scenes are probably between Chauk and Sara as they communicate despite their language barrier, which bring sweet, unsentimental lightness to a dark story.
Not much is revealed about the characters’ past, and they are not portrayed as perfect heroes. However, it is easy to care about them as individuals. We never find out how the protagonists met, what life and which loved ones, if any, they are leaving behind. What matters is the present, the next step in a long journey which our trio navigate stoically. Despite setbacks and horrors, turning back is never considered an option.
Gripping and aesthetically beautiful, but always honest and uncompromising in its depiction of the characters' journey and the real-life context. Diego Quemada-Díez’ The Golden Dream encourages empathy and commitment without resorting to sentimentality, and the first-time actors are completely engaging - an especially impressive feat given the sparseness of the script.