Perhaps the most haunting feature about Diego Quemada-Diez’s directorial debut are the credits. They list around 600 real-life South American migrants, whose stories Diez collected and amalgamated into The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro in Spanish), a gritty and unflinching portrait of immigration into the USA. The film’s documentary-like aspect is strengthened by the fact that it draws heavily from the realism of Ken Loach, with whom Diez has worked a number of times. The natural lighting, narrative progression and partially improvised script lend the entire film a disturbingly real nature, implementing a powerful effect.
La Jaula de Oro comes from a Mexican ballad, which literally translates as “The Golden Cage”, which is what many South American immigrants find themselves in upon reaching the fabled USA. However, the American Dream still seems to appeal strongly to many people – including the three teenagers which are the subject of The Golden Dream – Juan, Sara and Chauk. All played by non-professional actors turning in gripping and tense performances (Brandon López, Karen Martínez and Rodolfo Domínguez), Juan and Sara find themselves attempting the long and dangerous journey to the border via train rooftops with Chauk, a Tzotzil Indian who speaks no Spanish. It’s fascinating how Diez builds up a very interesting relationship (and potential love-triangle) between the three teens, only to brutally rip it apart with the dangers that they continually face. The way Diez contrasts the burgeoning, often romantic, relationships with the dangers the teens face is very unnerving. The film doesn’t fall into the trap of feeling artificial at all – it feels painfully honest.
The Golden Dream is very much about journeys, of all kinds. Diez has talked in interviews of the horrific way companies in America treat migrants when they arrive – and of the use of the many trains the teenagers travel on as metaphors for progress. In a way, the train is simply carrying them as cargo – as cheap labour to be ferried into American factories to be exploited, underpaid and overworked. The development of the characters is also fascinating – Juan and Chauk begin completely at odds with each other, with Juan’s egotism and materialistic nature representing the desperate faith of the ‘Dream’ that they’re striving towards. Chauk is the opposite – caring deeply about people and the time he spends with them, even if the language barrier makes communication almost impossible. Of course, as their physical journey progresses, Juan slowly evolves into a very different person.
Despite the orange, sunny setting, The Golden Dream can be quite a bleak experience, but it is one that everyone should watch. Truly bringing the pain that real life migrants undergo everyday to the forefront of our minds, it’s both a powerful social commentary and a very moving personal story.