Northbound: Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) ride the rails through Mexico in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre." (Photo by Fukunaga, courtesy Focus Features)

Cary Joji Fukunaga on the (Very) Bay Area Story Behind 'Sin Nombre'

Judy Stone March 15, 2009

Cary Joji Fukunaga thinks it might be easier to draw his own family tree than try to untangle the many strands—Japanese, Swedish, Romanian, Argentinian, Mexican, French—enlivening his life. They made for a very tall, handsome 31-year old who enjoys equally the company of Latin American friends and what he calls his "surrogate Israeli parents" in Los Angeles. They also hint at why his film Sin Nombre is about complex families —those in Mexican gangs and those traveling immigrants looking for a better life in the U.S.

There’s a glimmer of humor in the eyes behind his dark-rimmed glasses. His soft voice races beyond the interviewer’s ability to keep up with this son of a Swedish American mother and third generation Japanese American father. They met at the Sears Point racetrack (in Sonoma County) on a blind date set up by friends. His mom went on to marry others, including a Mexican American and an Irish American. But he had other parental figures in his life as well—those of his friends, "who ate dinner together and did things together. I liked hanging out with them.

Was his own family confusing? "No, it made me realize as a kid that even adults don’t always know the best solutions for things."

He had to move around a lot to keep up with his parents: Oakland , Berkeley, Albany, Vallejo, Benicia, Sebastopol and back to Oakland. Each household was different, "sometimes in a nice place, sometimes not in a nice place, sometimes living with grandparents, depending on who had a job at the time." Dedicating his film to his late Japanese grandmother, he recalled repeatedly asking her about the time she was interned, and her response always was, "There’s nothing to say or talk about."

He’d keep asking. "I’ve always been curious about history and my family’s history. Both sides. My mom’s father was a pilot in World War II. I’ve had a mixture of everything. Starting at age 5, I’d go with my stepdad, my mom’s Chicano husband, to Mexico every year, from about three weeks to a month, and camp out on the beach. He was a surfer and I’d be homeschooled, so I was exposed to Mexican culture at a very young age. And you can’t grow up in California without hearing about immigration, Cesar Chavez and all that stuff. But I didn’t want to be a filmmaker to do an immigration story, I just aspired to make movies."

However, during his second year at New York University’s film school, he read a front-page story in the New York Times that triggered his interest. It was about 90 Mexican and Central American immigrants who were trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. Nineteen people had died, including a father and his 5-year old son. Although he didn’t know if he could do justice to that story, he began researching the world of illegal immigration.

His short student film, Victoria para Chino, about a trailer of immigrants abandoned in Texas, began winning prizes and created interest in a follow-up feature production on illegal immigration. Fukunaga started traveling to prisons in Chiapas to interview gang members who controlled the rail lines and the gangs they battled with, as well as immigrants in shelters and organizations that specialized in their human rights.

The prisoners were wary. "Some didn’t want to talk at all, some talked too much and exaggerated, but some mostly told the truth. It took about two years to find three guys whom I could trust with what they were saying. After about one-and-a-half years, one guy who was a leader gave me contacts on the street to meet some gang members who were still active. It took a lot of time for research and gaining their trust."

He also began riding the rails on train rooftops along with illegal immigrants. It took six weeks to shoot Sin Nombre with one-third on train tops. "While shooting, I was never scared," Fukunaga said, "except for one time when the train stopped at night and bandits attacked, shooting a Guatemalan man who refused to give them money. When the train started moving, the bandits disappeared. The next day I wasn’t sure if they were still on the train but I stayed on to continue shooting. No one knows what happened to the bandits."

The intrepid director discovered that he liked riding on train tops and kept it up first for 30 hours, then 24 and finally eight or nine hours.

But just as the motherless Honduran teenager in Sin Nombre doesn’t know how to interact with the father she’s just meeting, and the kid who looks upon the Mara Salvatrucha gang as his family without realizing it’s not a good family for him, Fukunaga is still exploring the subject of families wherever a homeless child can find one.

He has already written a script about the tragic choice of a youngster in an unnamed African country. After his own parents are murdered, the boy becomes a killer—because of his need to belong to some kind of family, no matter how depraved. It is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel Beasts of No Nation.

"The boy decided to re-recreate a family with his friends and a rebel leader, even though the leader sexually abused him. So it’s a twisted version of a family," Fukunaga said. "I like exploring love and people in this sort of marginal society. It’s civilization at the brink of being non-civilized and how people can normalize experience within that context. So that’s what gang experience, a wild west atmosphere or being a child soldier can do to a boy searching for love and security."

Judy Stone, former critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and a writer on film for more than 40 years, is the author of Not Quite a Memoir, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, and The Mystery of B. Traven. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Ramparts, among other publications. She is a regular contributor to

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