According to the US Department of Homeland Security, around 20,000 Guatemalans illegally cross the border every year to take up residence in the US. There are many more, of course, who set out with that goal in mind but don't make it. The dangers of the journey are manifold - robbers, slavers, corrupts police, vigilante execution squads and simple exposure to the elements. Yet the American Dream - the certainty that in America anyone can achieve anything just by working hard - is very much alive in Guatemala even as it fades at home. It ensures that there will always be more prepared to try, even if it means leaving behind everything they know.
He has faithfully stuck to Loach's realist directing style: shooting in sequence and using a semi-improvisatory approach on location. Many have had a go at the Loach formula (see Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant), but Quemada-Diez is arguably closer to the gritty and unapologetic original.
Quemada-Diez has found three excellent non-professional actors for his lead roles. Brandon López and Karen Martínez play Juan and Sara, two kids who are desperate to get out of Guatemala, along with a young Indian boy they meet, Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez). With some US dollar bills sewn secretly into their jeans, they plan on hopping boxcars and riding the rails up through Mexico and then over the border into California, this last part requiring them to work their passage by volunteering as drug mules for the gangs running heroin through secret crossing points. At every stage, these vulnerable teenagers face danger and almost certain death from predatory criminals to whom their young lives are worth less than zero.
A flowing, lyrical film, at times startlingly beautiful, The Golden Dream hypnotises the viewer with its constant movement, its unceasing rhythm. It can also be shockingly brutal, and abrupt departures leave us longing for a Hollywood narrative that will grant us resolution, aching from the inability to find out what happened to those who are lost. On this journey, it's easy to be laughing one moment and dead the next. Only the dream is consistent, but can America possibly deliver what is promised? It's notoriously difficult to make this kind of film work, both at the scripting stage and in the execution. What Quemada-Díez has achieved is a triumph.
Beautifully shot, and powerfully told, The Golden Dream succeeds in telling a political story, personally. Using improvisational techniques and non-professional actors, Diego Quemada-Diez's astounding and gripping début feature is a piercing and poetic road movie.
The Golden Dream is showing at the East End Film Festival. Check it out on the 21st of June at Hackney Picturehouse. Buy tickets here!